Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis: What’s the Difference? | Keck Medicine of USC

Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis: What’s the Difference?

If you constantly wake up with joints that are stiff and sore, you might be one of the 50 million Americans with arthritis, an inflammation of the joints. With more than 100 varieties, arthritis symptoms, causes and treatments vary tremendously.

So how do you know when those aches may signal arthritis? Experts at the USC Joint Preservation and Replacement Center can give you a proper diagnosis and develop an individualized treatment plan.


Osteoarthritis (OA) is by far the most common type of arthritis, developing primarily with age and overuse. When the cartilage between bones wears away with age and time, your joints lose their cushioning, causing pain during movement and stiffness after rest. Bony spurs may also form around the joint. OA can be triggered by family history, age, excess weight or a previous injury to the joint.

OA typically develops slowly, over months or years. You may start to notice pain and stiffness – particularly stiffness that fades less than an hour after you wake up. Depending on which joints are affected, daily tasks like gripping, bending or climbing stairs may become more difficult.

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Your doctor can diagnose OA through x-rays and discuss the best way to manage your symptoms. Though OA has no cure, non-surgical options like medication, physical therapy and lifestyle changes can relieve pain and inflammation. For severe cases, a variety of surgical procedures – from cartilage repair to complete joint replacement – can restore function and movement.

Staying active, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding repetitive movements can help delay or prevent OA in some people.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that tends to occur in middle age, affecting three times as many women as men. While its precise cause is unknown, research suggests that infection, genetics, hormone changes and smoking may be factors. Beyond swollen, aching joints, RA sufferers may experience chest pain while breathing; dry eyes and mouth; numbness, tingling or burning in the hands and feet; and difficulty sleeping.

RA can be diagnosed through several tests, including blood work, x-rays, ultrasounds and a joint fluid analysis.

RA is degenerative and causes joint damage over time, but early diagnosis can help limit this damage. Many newer medications may help send the disease into remission. Physical therapy, nutritional changes and surgery can treat and reverse RA.

Get Help from the Experts

Experts from the USC Joint Preservation and Replacement Center and USC Orthopaedic Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC work closely with other healthcare professionals, including rheumatologists and physical therapists, to diagnose and treat arthritis using the most appropriate treatment options. They are also researching new treatments for arthritis, including minimally invasive procedures with faster recoveries, in addition to developing new ways to regrow cartilage.

If you think you may have arthritis, request an appointment with an expert from the USC Joint Preservation and Replacement Center or call (800) USC-CARE.


USC Joint Preservation and Replacement Center

The Arthritis Foundation