The confusion between arthritis and rheumatism is understandable. Although the word "rheumatism" is no longer in the medical dictionary, it is still used informally to describe symptoms similar to those experienced in osteoarthritis.

Rheumatism and arthritis both tend to be used as descriptions for a variety of symptoms, such as joint pain and inflammation.

Here, we will clarify exactly what is meant by the terms "arthritis" and "rheumatism," and how two modern-day terms describe two different conditions: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Fast facts on arthritis and rheumatism:

  • Medical professionals no longer use the word "rheumatism," but it remains in general language, there is no real difference between rheumatism and arthritis.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of autoimmune disease (where the body attacks its own cells).
  • More than 50 million Americans are thought to be living with arthritis.
  • Over 300,000 children live with arthritis in the United States.
  • Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis often overlap, but have some fundamental differences and require different treatments.

There is no major difference. The most important difference is that rheumatism is no longer the preferred term.

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Rheumatism is still found in the dictionary and refers to a number of conditions of the muscles and joints.

However, doctors no longer use the word. Black's medical dictionary says it is "an obsolete medical term which no longer has a defined meaning."

Words similar to rheumatism are still in use by medical professionals; rheumatoid and rheumatology, for example. The well-regarded journal Arthritis & Rheumatology is resource for doctors in the field. Rheumatologists are doctors that specialize in the management of diseases of joints and connective tissues.

When non-doctors use the word "arthritis," they are sometimes referring to osteoarthritis, when they use the word "rheumatism," they often mean rheumatoid arthritis.

It is best to use the precise modern terminology, then there is no room for confusion.

Arthritis literally means "joint inflammation," but it is used as a collective term for a complex family of musculoskeletal (muscle and skeleton) disorders that include over 100 different diseases or conditions.

The Arthritis Foundation, a non-profit organization in the U.S., estimates that there are 53 million Americans living with arthritis.

Although the image that comes to mind when discussing arthritis is an older adult, arthritis can affect people of any age. In fact, two-thirds of the cases of arthritis are found in adults under the age of 65, and 300,000 children in America have arthritis.

The two most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis. It is caused by wear and tear on the joints. The symptoms usually develop gradually and include:

  • sore or stiff joints
  • stiffness after resting that improves with movement
  • pain that worsens after activity or toward the end of the day

Cartilage protects and cushions the joints, stopping bones from rubbing against each other. In osteoarthritis, this cartilage is damaged and becomes lost, which allows bones to collide painfully.

It might simply be due to the overuse of a particular joint, this is called primary osteoarthritis. In other cases, osteoarthritis might be due to a medical condition like obesity. In these cases, it is referred to as secondary osteoarthritis. However, sometimes, the cause of osteoarthritis is not clear.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is another common form of arthritis. It is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body mistakes its own tissues as foreign and attacks them.

In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks joints and other parts of the body, producing symptoms that often involve pain, fatigue, and warm, swollen, inflamed-looking joints.

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Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are worse in the morning.

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are separate conditions.

Osteoarthritis is due to wear and tear; rheumatoid arthritis is because of an inappropriate immune response.

There are also differences in the way the diseases present themselves in an individual.

Here are a few ways in which the two conditions are different:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is more likely to affect the middle joints of the fingers and the joints that attach the fingers to the hand.
  • Osteoarthritis is more likely to affect the joint at the base of the thumb and those at the end of the fingers.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis tends to be symmetrical, in other words, if the left knee is affected, the right knee is generally affected, too.
  • Osteoarthritis is not necessarily symmetrical.

In both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, joints will be stiff and painful in the morning. For osteoarthritis, this will last around 20 minutes, but for rheumatoid arthritis, it can last more than 45 minutes.

It is worth noting that it is possible to have both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. For instance, an individual might have rheumatoid arthritis in their knee and osteoarthritis in the bones of the spine.

Osteoarthritis does not cause rheumatoid arthritis, but rheumatoid arthritis can lead to secondary osteoarthritis by damaging the joint.