Woman on laptop looking up the difference between osteoarthritis vs. arthritis

Osteoarthritis vs. Arthritis: How Are They Different?

Medically reviewed on March 7, 2024 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Table of contents

Arthritis, which can cause a number of painful symptoms, is a general term for more than 100 conditions that affect the joints. [1] Osteoarthritis is one such condition. [2]

Particularly, osteoarthritis is a type of wear-and-tear arthritis, in which your daily movements degrade the joints, bones, and cartilage over time. In other cases, osteoarthritis may arise following an injury to the joint tissues. [3]

This differs from many autoimmune arthritis conditions, in which joint inflammation—rather than joint damage—is the primary feature. [4]

What Sets Osteoarthritis Apart?

Osteoarthritis is a type of degenerative joint disease. As a result, it’s most common in older people, as normal wear and tear as you age can lead to the breakdown of joint tissues, such as [3, 5]:

  • Cartilage, where two bones meet to form a joint
  • Tendons, which connect muscles to bones to support movement
  • Ligaments, which connect bones to bones to provide joints with stability
  • Synovium, which lines and lubricates the joint to reduce friction and damage
  • Meniscus, which provides stability and cushioning in the knee joint

In people with osteoarthritis, joint pain is persistent, and stiffness may occur after long periods of inactivity, such as sitting in front of a TV. [5] Additional symptoms of this condition include [3]:

  • Swelling near a joint
  • Inability to fully extend a joint
  • Joint weakness
  • Joint deformity

That said, osteoarthritis can affect each joint differently, depending on the location [5]:

  • Hands – Osteoarthritis in the hands can cause joint pain, stiffness, tenderness and swelling. It often affects the joints at the base of the thumb and the end joints of the fingers, impacting grip strength and fine motor skills.
  • Knees – In the knees, osteoarthritis may result in pain, swelling, difficulty moving, and a scraping noise when walking. The joint cartilage wears down, leading to joint stiffness, and in advanced cases, it can affect the ability to walk comfortably.
  • Hips – Osteoarthritis in the hips can cause pain, reduced range of motion, and joint stiffness in the groin, inner thigh, and buttocks. It commonly affects the hip joint's ball-and-socket structure, causing pain that can spread to the knees, impacting daily physical activity routines like walking and standing.
  • Spine – Osteoarthritis of the spine, often in the lower back or neck, can lead to pain, stiffness, and reduced flexibility. It may affect the intervertebral discs and facet joints, influencing posture and movement. This may also develop into spinal stenosis, a condition characterized by the narrowing of the spinal canal. This can cause numbness, muscle weakness, and even bowel and bladder problems.

Unfortunately, osteoarthritis is relatively common in older people, affecting 80% of adults over the age of 55. That said, only about 60% of patients with osteoarthritis experience any type of physical, noticeable symptoms [3].

How to Treat and Manage Osteoarthritis (OA)

To diagnose osteoarthritis, a healthcare provider will assess your symptoms, conduct a physical exam, and facilitate imaging tests, such as an X-ray, to observe possible damage to the joints. [3]

Upon diagnosis, a healthcare provider will likely recommend [3]:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications to reduce inflammation in the affected joint
  • Daily movement and exercise to strengthen the muscles around the joints
  • Supportive braces to stabilize the joints
  • Therapies, such as acupuncture and massage
  • Dietary supplements to support bone, muscle, and joint health
  • Surgery, if the patient presents with severe OA symptoms

The Differences Between Types of Autoimmune Arthritis

Unlike osteoarthritis, autoimmune arthritis diseases occur when the immune system begins to attack the body’s own tissues, including the joints, causing painful inflammation throughout the body. [4]

There are numerous types of autoimmune arthritis diseases, including the following.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

When the immune system dysfunctions, immune cells that typically defend the body against harmful pathogens, infections, and diseases mistakenly attack the body instead. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the joints, causing widespread and chronic joint inflammation—characterized by swelling, pain, and immobility. [4, 6]

When the immune system functions normally, inflammation can help eliminate pathogens, repair damaged tissues, and initiate healing. However, in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation can erode joint cartilage and bone, causing deformities and functional impairment. [4, 7]

Effectively, inflammation can damage the joint tissues within the hands, wrists, and knees, potentially causing [6]:

  • Stiffness
  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Fever

Risk factors of rheumatoid arthritis include smoking, obesity, genetics, and sex—namely, women and people assigned female at birth are more likely to develop the disease. [6] See more on the early symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in hands to learn more.

How to Treat and Manage Rheumatoid Arthritis

To effectively assess your symptoms, your primary healthcare provider may direct you to a rheumatologist, who specializes in arthritis. They’ll likely conduct physical exams, blood tests, and imaging tests to look for signs of joint inflammation. The diagnostic criteria for this type of arthritis are as follows [6]:

  • Inflammatory arthritis in two or more large joints
  • Inflammatory arthritis in smaller joints
  • Positive biomarkers of inflammation in the blood (antibodies)
  • Elevated levels of C-reactive protein
  • Symptoms that last more than six weeks

If diagnosed, treatment and management options include [6]:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin
  • Corticosteroids, which help reduce inflammation and associated pain
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which can help modify immune responses
  • Biologics, which target and reduce inflammation
  • Surgery, to repair damaged joints
  • Diet changes, to ease inflammation, such as reducing bad fats, salt, and processed carbs
  • Weight loss, if needed, to reduce stress on the inflamed joints
  • Rest, to mitigate joint damage
  • Exercise, to increase muscle strength and improve range-of-motion

Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects individuals with psoriasis, a skin disorder characterized by red, scaly patches. This condition often develops in individuals already diagnosed with psoriasis but can also manifest independently. [8]

Psoriatic arthritis is classified as an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues, similar to rheumatoid arthritis. In the case of psoriatic arthritis, the immune system also targets the joints, causing painful inflammation, which may lead to [8]:

  • Joint damage
  • Joint deformities

The exact cause of psoriatic arthritis is not fully understood, but it is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Learn more in our guide: Is Arthritis Hereditary?

How to Treat and Manage Psoriatic Arthritis

The diagnostic process, most often facilitated by a rheumatologist, involves both imaging and physical exams to assess the severity of inflammation. That said, treatment options will depend on several factors, including [8]:

  • Affected joints
  • Symptom severity
  • Level of immobility

All that said, potential treatments are very similar to that of rheumatoid arthritis and include [8]:

  • NSAIDs
  • Corticosteroids
  • DMARDs
  • Physical therapies
  • Joint replacement surgeries
  • Healthy diet
  • Regular exercise

Ankylosing Spondylitis

As an autoimmune disease, ankylosing spondylitis is also characterized by immune dysfunction. In this case, the immune cells attack the joints located in the lower back and pelvis—called the sacroiliac joints. As a result, people with ankylosing spondylitis may experience pain that radiates in and from this area, affecting the [9]:

  • Hips
  • Buttocks
  • Neck
  • Stomach

In addition to joint pain, this type of inflammation may also cause [9]:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin rashes
  • Eye damage
  • Immobility

The cause is most likely linked to a genetic mutation; although, old age, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and psoriasis can also put people at a greater risk of developing this disease. [9]

How to Treat and Manage Ankylosing Spondylitis

Like other diagnosis techniques, your healthcare provider will combine a series of physical, imaging, and blood tests to confirm that you have ankylosing spondylitis. [9]

In addition to pain medications, like NSAIDS, DMARDs, and corticosteroids, the most effective management plan involves regular exercise. [9] Incorporating stretching and strengthening exercises can help to [9]:

  • Reduce stiffness
  • Ease pain
  • Stop the condition from worsening

Juvenile Arthritis

Unlike osteoarthritis, which typically develops in old age, juvenile arthritis affects children aged 16 and under—most commonly affecting girls and people assigned female at birth. [10] The autoimmune disease attacks the tissue lining—the synovium—which can cause friction, swelling, pain, and stiffness where joints exist. [11]

This process can spread, eventually damaging the cartilage and bones near the joints. [11]

Children can develop five types of arthritis [11]:

  • Oligoarthritis – Impacts five or fewer joints, including the knees, ankles, and elbows. It may also cause inflammation in the eye tissue.
  • Polyarthritis – Impacts five or more joints symmetrically across the body. This may involve the neck, jaw, hands, and feet.
  • Psoriatic arthritis – Affects children with psoriasis, causing skin rashes and nail damage.
  • Enthesitis-related arthritis – Affects the spine, hips, and eyes.
  • Systemic arthritis – Can affect the whole body, including the internal organs, causing high fever and a rash.

How to Treat and Manage Juvenile Arthritis

Without treatment, juvenile arthritis can delay development and growth. [11] These types of arthritis require such treatments as [11]:

  • NSAIDs
  • Corticosteroids
  • DMARDs
  • Biologics
  • Regular exercise
  • Occupational therapies

Learn About Your Arthritis With Everlywell

The difference between osteoarthritis vs. arthritis caused by autoimmune diseases lies in their underlying mechanisms and origins. While osteoarthritis results from the degradation of joints over time, autoimmune arthritis occurs when the immune system faultily attacks healthy joint tissues. Try taking our Vitamin D & Inflammation Test to get an easy read on both your levels for vitamin D and for hs-CRP.

No matter the cause, Everlywell can help you diagnose and treat your condition. Our virtual care visits partner you with a licensed healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms and determine the best next steps to support your health goals.

With Everlywell, a healthier you is only a video call away.

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  1. What is arthritis? | Arthritis Foundation. Last reviewed June 9, 2022. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  2. Professional CCM. Arthritis. Cleveland Clinic. Last reviewed November 13, 2023. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  3. Professional CCM. Osteoarthritis. Cleveland Clinic. Last reviewed October 2, 2023. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  4. Rheumatoid arthritis | CDC. Last reviewed April 7, 2022. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  5. Branch NSC and O. NIAMS health information on osteoarthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Published December 15, 2023. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  6. Professional CCM. Rheumatoid arthritis. Cleveland Clinic. Last reviewed February 18, 2022. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  7. Kokkas B. Tissue injury and inflammation. Annals of General Psychiatry. 2010;9(S1). doi:10.1186/1744-859x-9-s1-s1. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  8. Professional CCM. Psoriatic arthritis. Cleveland Clinic. Last reviewed September 19, 2023. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  9. Professional CCM. Ankylosing spondylitis. Cleveland Clinic. Last reviewed December 19, 2023. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  10. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. Published October 5, 2022. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.
  11. Professional CCM. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Cleveland Clinic. Last reviewed February 2, 2019. Medical Citation URL. Accessed February 1, 2024.

Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT is most fulfilled when guiding others towards making stepwise, sustainable changes that add up to big results over time. Jordan works with a wide variety of individuals, ranging in age from children to the elderly, with an assortment of concerns and clinical conditions, and has written for publications such as Innerbody. She helps individuals optimize overall health and/or manage disease states using personalized medical nutrition therapy techniques.
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