What’s The Difference Between Osteoarthritis And Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Older and younger woman holding hands

My mum recently got diagnosed with osteoarthritis, so I wanted to write this article to talk about it and look at the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Although both come under the ‘arthritis umbrella’ and are common amongst the elderly, you can’t lump them in together. So without further ado, let’s take a closer look at these different types of arthritis.

Check out our article on the best arthritis aids and products. There’s a real range here and they’re all proven to help improve quality of life.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the UK, with over 50% of people aged 65 and over living with it (source: NICE). But exactly what is osteoarthritis?

Well, it’s a condition that causes our joints to become painful and stiff. Whilst any joints can be affected, it’s usually our hands and fingers, knees and hips. Which helps to explain why so many hip and knee replacements take place, especially amongst older adults (although of course, osteoarthritis isn’t the only reason to have a joint replaced).

What Causes Osteoarthritis?

So what causes osteoarthritis? Well, it’s largely due to wear and tear – by that, we mean ongoing use throughout life. This wear and tear leads to inflammation and degeneration of the joints.

We all have cartilage in our joints, acting as a shock absorber. Like other parts of the body, cartilage goes through an ongoing cycle of breakdown and repair but when someone has osteoarthritis, their cartilage degenerates.

Their bones have less protection from joint friction and impact, which is why it’s known as a degenerative joint disease.

It’s not just the elderly who get osteoarthritis – or being over a certain age doesn’t mean you’ll be diagnosed.

It’s thought that osteoarthritis is genetic, so may run across generations. Obesity and osteoarthritis is also cause for concern, with the extra weight putting further strain on weight-bearing joints. It’s also more common in women, although men can and do suffer too.

Osteoarthritis Symptoms

As you can imagine now you know the above, the main symptoms of osteoarthritis are painful joints and stiffness. The severity of OA depends on the individual and there can also sometimes be swelling at the joint too (it can sometimes become red).

It can affect elderly wellbeing – for example, your parent may not be able to take part in their usual activities and has to spend less time being active. As it affects the joints however, they may find it uncomfortable to spend too long sitting in one position.

What Can Be Done For Osteoarthritis?

First things first, it’s important to go to the doctor and get an osteoarthritis diagnosis. If necessary, the GP can refer you to an orthopedic consultant who may be able to administer cortisone injections for pain relief.

Walking aids can help people with hip and knee osteoarthritis. They give them more support, making them more stable at a time when their joints are not moving so easily. If your elderly parent has osteoarthritis in hands or fingers, just check how their grip is before buying a mobility aid.

Supplements for bone health can help in some cases (but always check with your doctor first). Magnesium helps promote healthy bones as it is required for the absorption and transport of calcium and Omega 3 is another natural supplement which helps maintain bone health.

Glucosamine can help relieve joint pain as it can foster cartilage formation. For people suffering from painful joints, the natural remedies of anti-inflammatory turmeric can help too, as can fish oil to alleviate stiffness swelling.

Heat can be a saviour for people living with arthritis pain, increasing the blood flow to the source of discomfort and helping to decrease muscle pain.

When my mum’s arthritic hands get painful, she keeps them warm by massaging them. You can also try heat packs, warm baths and hot towels. Be careful not to overdo the heat treatment though as it could led to further swelling.

Exercises For Osteoarthritis

If it’s not too painful then exercise is thought to be the most effective non-medicinal treatment for osteoarthritis. So I spoke with our physiotherapist at ElWell, Nancy Farmer to find out more.

When it comes to exercise for osteoarthritis, it’s all about building up the muscle around the joints. This will help to take the stress off the joints, and maintain strength and flexibility in the area.

What you want are active range of motion exercises – essentially exercises like gentle stretching that move your joints through the full motion they were designed to achieve.

Encourage your parent to go for gentle walks, or try pilates or yoga for osteoarthritis. These low impact exercises focus on building muscle strength and improving joint movement. They’re also great for balance, which helps to prevent a fall in the elderly.

Nancy also recommends aqua aerobics or hydrotherapy (otherwise known as water therapy for osteoarthritis). It removes the impact of exercising on hard land. The water adds gentle resistance and can also help to warm the muscles the muscles up to reduce pain.

Talking of water, a warm bath (or a heat pack) can also help heat the muscles up before other types of exercise.

It’s so important to keep senior fitness up, whatever their ability. For more info, read our article on staying active as you age.

Exercises That Make Osteoarthritis Worse

Whilst swimming is great as the water adds resistance, avoid breaststroke. The side-to-side movement from the shoulder and legs puts force on the joints. Instead, you want to try swimming strokes that kick like front crawl.

If your parent only likes to do breaststroke, they could break it up into two segments. Put a float between their legs and perform the breaststroke arm movement. Then hold onto the sides and kick their legs with the float between them.

Gentle walking is also good for osteoarthritis, strengthening muscles and improving bone mass. But avoid walking up and down hills (putting unnecessary strain on the joints) and any jogging should be done on softer surfaces, not on tarmac.

Home Remedies For Osteoarthritis

Whilst there isn’t a cure for osteoarthritis, lifestyle changes can have great effect on this degenerative disease. With obesity being a factor, changing diet and improving exercise can help.

Your parent may also find osteoarthritis home remedies provide some relief. Things like Epsom salts in the bath (they contain magnesium which as we learnt above, helps to reduce inflammation), heat packs and cold compresses – use heat for stiff joints and the cold to alleviate joint pain.

At A Glance: The Difference Between Osteoarthritis And Rheumatoid Arthritis

OsteoarthritisRheumatoid Arthritis
What causes it?Inflammation and degeneration of joints. The cartilage (our natural shock absorber) breaks down.Auto-immune disease – your body attacks the lining of joints.
Is it an elderly disease?The majority of people with OA are over 65 years of age.There is late onset RA but any age can be diagnosed.
What are the symptoms?Painful joints, stiffness.Red, swollen, painful joints. Fever, muscular pain, weight loss.
What treatment is recommended?See a doctor, gentle exercise, bone health supplements, natural remedies may provide light relief. Medication (always see a doctor first), light low-impact exercise, healthy diet.

What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Now it’s the turn for rheumatoid arthritis to go under the spotlight. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where your body attacks the lining of a joint. This lining is naturally there to protect your joints, and rheumatoid arthritis leads to them becoming swollen, stiff and painful.

It can affect joints over the whole body, but is usually attributed to the hands and fingers, feet and ankles, wrists and shoulders (especially in the elderly).

Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause deformities to develop. For example, rheumatoid arthritis in hands can lead to a swan neck deformity, where the finger joints bend in unusual directions, affecting grip and finger mobility. And in feet, it can cause bunions and claw toe where your toe may bend up or down at the joint.

Seeing a podiatrist can help your parent understand how best to look after their feet, and their doctor can always recommend a specialist hand physiotherapist to improve mobility.

As it’s an autoimmune disease, there are other symptoms to be aware of. When there is a rheumatoid arthritis flare up, it can also come with a raised temperature (your joints can also feel warm too), muscle aches and pains and weight loss in some circumstances. Some people have constant rheumatoid arthritis, others have times when the joints flare up.

Age is not a huge factor in this chronic inflammatory disease – in fact, the majority of people who develop the condition are under 50. However, elderly-onset rheumatoid arthritis (also called late onset rheumatoid arthritis) is very real.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Causes

We don’t actually know what causes the immune system to attack healthy body tissue. Like with osteoarthritis, there’s some evidence that RA is genetic. Women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis earlier in life, but when it comes to the elderly, the difference between sexes is negligible. Smoking is also thought to be a trigger for rheumatoid arthritis.

Dealing With Rheumatoid Arthritis

There’s no cure for rheumatoid arthritis but your parent can learn to cope with the condition, with medication and other remedies.

Whilst heat is good for osteoarthritis, it’s cold therapy for rheumatoid arthritis. The cold constricts blood vessels meaning that you experience decreased inflammation and pain.

Book a GP appointment and it’s likely they will refer you to a rheumatologist for expert advice on medication, steroids and, physiotherapy more. They may also arrange blood tests (a certain protein called is often present in people with RA) and X-rays to monitor for changes in bones and joints.

Exercises For Rheumatoid Arthritis

Like with osteoarthritis, exercise can benefit rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. If your parent is suffering from a flare up, or just wants to keep their rheumatoid arthritis at bay then low impact resistance exercises could help.

Light gentle walking, aqua aerobics, cycling, tai chi and hand exercises such as squeezing a stress ball can help increase strength and flexibility.

A healthy diet can also help to treat rheumatoid arthritis, controlling the inflammation and maintaining weight so joints don’t get further strain. Encourage your parents to fill their plate with fatty fish, whole grains and pulses and lots of fruit and vegetables.

Can You Get Osteoarthritis And Rheumatoid Arthritis Together?

Whilst most people will only develop one, it is possible to have both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. That’s because they have very different causes – an automimmune disease and joint degeneration.

The good news is that treatment for one shouldn’t impact the other, and vice versa (and in the case of exercise, can help both).


Arthritis is a blanket term and I thought it was helpful to unravel the two most common types of arthritis for the elderly. Whilst there isn’t a cure, regular exercise, a healthy diet, useful products and expert advice can help your parents to take control of their conditions. Hope you’ve found this article on the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis useful.

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