Inflammatory rheumatism is a generic term used to cover dozens of disorders. These disorders are usually referred to as rheumatic disorders. Rheumatic disorders are conditions related to inflamed joints, muscles, and tissue that connect or support your organs and other internal body parts. Many rheumatic disorders are autoimmune disorders. Some rheumatic disorders are caused by crystals, such as uric acid crystals or gout.
The field of medicine that deals with these issues is called rheumatology. Rheumatologists are doctors who specialize in disorders of the joints, muscles, and the immune system. It’s important to understand the major types of rheumatic disorders in order to understand what inflammatory rheumatism is all about.
Many rheumatoid disorders are part of a collection of conditions known as autoimmune diseases. These are diseases that develop when the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue in the body instead of germs, bacteria, and viruses.
The most common type of rheumatic disorder is rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It’s a chronic inflammatory condition. People with RA have swollen and inflamed joints. That is because the body is producing autoantibodies and immune cells that attack the lining of your joints. RA can be very painful.
RA can cause your joints to become permanently damaged and disfigured. RA is usually isolated to the body’s smaller joints, such as the knuckles on your hand or your toes. RA can also have systemic symptoms, meaning it affects other areas, such as:
- blood vessels
The first noticeable symptoms of RA, however, are usually sore and stiff joints in the hands or feet.
There are also other rheumatic disorders.
Gout is a very painful inflammatory disease of the joint. It occurs when too many uric acid crystals build up in your body tissues. It leads to swelling, redness, and a hot feeling in the affected joint. It often develops in a big toe, but can flare up in other joints, too. If it goes untreated over a long period of time, nodules, known as tophi, can form. Uric acid crystals can also lead to reduced kidney function.
Vasculitis is a rare, but potentially life-threatening inflammation of blood vessels. It can lead to reduced blood flow to tissue, known as ischemia. Severe pain may occur in the tissue fed by the affected blood vessel. Symptoms may include:
- red spots
- tender bumps or sores on the skin
- weakness in your extremities
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that’s much more common in young women than in men. However, it can develop in males and females, and at any age. The disease is more severe in men than in women. Lupus flare-ups can lead to:
- painful and stiff joints
- skin rashes
- oral, nasal, scalp ulcers
- difficulty taking deep breaths
Scleroderma is a chronic fibrosing or scarring condition that affects the connective tissue in various parts of the body. The most obvious symptom is a hardening of the skin, but depending on which organs are affected, signs as common as heartburn can indicate the possibility of scleroderma.
Sjogren’s syndrome is a common, yet often under-recognized rheumatic disorder. It affects approximately 4,000,000 people in the United States. Women are more likely to suffer from this disorder, and they account for nine out of 10 people with the disorder.
The symptoms of Sjogren’s syndrome are similar to the symptoms of other conditions. It’s often misdiagnosed. The symptoms may include:
- dry mouth
- dry or burning throat
- difficulty talking, chewing, or swallowing
- debilitating fatigue
- digestive problems
- vaginal dryness
- skin rashes or dryness
- joint pain
Treating rheumatoid diseases can involve the use of steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). Both of those treatments help reduce inflammation. Steroids also reduce the hyperactivity of the immune system. That can help minimize symptoms and prevent tissue damage.
A variety of other drugs designed specifically to block the immune system are also available. These immune modulating medications are often immunosuppressive. They’re often prescribed if steroids are unable to bring symptoms under control.
Immunosuppressives can be very effective, but there can be side effects. One major concern is that because the drugs reduce the activity of your body’s immune system, you aren’t as well-equipped to fight off an infection while taking these medications. It’s important to work closely with your doctors if you have lupus or any other rheumatic disorder.
Gout can also be treated with the medication colchicine (Colcrys). Colchicine can be taken on a regular basis to prevent flare-ups or to help combat symptoms when a gout attack occurs. If the attacks are frequent, medications are available to dissolve the crystals that leave the body in the urine.
If you have a family history of rheumatic disorders, you may have an increased risk for developing one. Women also tend to be more vulnerable to rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other autoimmune diseases, including scleroderma. The reason for this is still not well understood. Estrogen may play a role and can favor inflammation.
Rheumatic disorders can occur at any age. Some conditions typically develop at certain times in your life, however. Lupus, for instance, tends to first appear in your teens or 20s. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to first present itself between the ages of 40 and 60.
If you start to experience joint pain that doesn’t have an obvious cause, such as a twisted ankle, tell your primary care physician. You may be referred to a rheumatologist for further evaluation and diagnosis.
Your doctor will do a physical exam to check for signs of swelling and “hot spots.” Sometimes, flare-ups of rheumatic disorders make the affected joints warm to the touch. Some of these diseases, particularly those without external skin-related symptoms, can be difficult to diagnose. You may need blood tests, X-rays, or other imaging tests like ultrasound.
Many of the most common rheumatoid disorders are treatable with a combination of medications and healthy lifestyle behaviors. Even without a cure, it’s often possible to manage a rheumatic disorder and its symptoms. Fortunately, this is an area of active medical research. Improved medications and other therapies are continually helping physicians and their patients deal with rheumatism and autoimmunity in all its many forms.