Inflammatory rheumatism is a generic term used to cover dozens of disorders. They’re usually referred to as rheumatic disorders. These are conditions related to inflamed joints, muscles, and tissues that connect or support your organs and other internal body parts.
Many rheumatic disorders are autoimmune disorders. These are diseases that develop when the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue in the body instead of germs, bacteria, and viruses. Other rheumatic disorders are caused by crystals, such as uric acid crystals in 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 immune system. It’s important to understand the major types of rheumatic disorders in order to understand what inflammatory rheumatism is all about.
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. This is because their immune systems attack the lining of their joints. RA can be very painful.
RA can also cause your joints to become permanently damaged and disfigured. It’s usually isolated to the body’s smaller joints, such as the knuckles in your hands or your toes. RA can also have systemic symptoms. This means 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.
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. Uric acid crystals can also lead to reduced kidney function.
Gout often develops in a big toe, but it can flare up in other joints, too. If the condition goes untreated for too long, nodules known as tophi can form.
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 that the affected blood vessel reaches.
Symptoms of vasculitis may include:
- red spots
- tender bumps or sores on the skin
- weakness in your extremities
Lupus is an autoimmune disease. It can develop in males and females at any age, but it’s much more common in young women than in men. That said, the disease is more severe in men than it is in women.
Lupus flare-ups can lead to:
- painful and stiff joints
- skin rashes
- ulcers in the mouth, nose, or scalp
- difficulty taking deep breaths
Scleroderma is a chronic scarring condition. It affects the connective tissue in various parts of the body. The most obvious symptom is a hardening of the skin. Depending on which organs are affected, signs as common as heartburn may also indicate scleroderma.
Sjogren’s syndrome is a common yet often under-recognized rheumatic disorder. It affects approximately 4 million people in the United States. Women are more likely to suffer from this disorder. They account for nine out of 10 people who have it. Still, the condition does occur in men and in childhood.
The symptoms of Sjogren’s are similar to those of other conditions, so it’s often misdiagnosed. The symptoms may include:
- dry mouth
- dry or burning throat
- difficulty talking, chewing, or swallowing
- digestive problems
- vaginal dryness
- skin rashes or dryness
- joint pain
- nerve pain
- swollen parotid glands
It’s important to work closely with your doctors if you have lupus or any other rheumatic disorder.
Treating rheumatoid diseases can involve the use of steroids and nonsteroidal 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. This can help decrease symptoms and prevent tissue damage.
A variety of other drugs are designed specifically to block the immune system. They’re often prescribed if steroids can’t control your symptoms. Immunosuppressive drugs can be very effective, but they can also have side effects. One major concern is that because the drugs reduce the activity of your immune system, you aren’t as well-equipped to fight off an infection.
Gout can be treated with the medication colchicine (Colcrys). Colchicine can be taken on a regular basis to prevent flare-ups or combat symptoms when a gout attack occurs. If the attacks are frequent, your doctor may prescribe medications to dissolve the crystals that leave your body in your urine.
If you have a family history of rheumatic disorders, you may have an increased risk. 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 in inflammation.
Rheumatic disorders can occur at any age. Some conditions typically develop at certain times in your life, however. For instance, lupus tends to appear in your teens or 20s. Rheumatoid arthritis tends to present itself between the ages of 40 and 60.
When to see a doctor
If you start having joint pain that doesn’t have an obvious cause, such as a twisted ankle, tell your doctor. 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 can be difficult to diagnose, especially if they don’t have external skin-related symptoms. Your doctor may need to perform blood tests, X-rays, or other imaging tests such as an ultrasound.
Many of the most common rheumatoid disorders are treatable with a combination of medication 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 people deal with rheumatism in all its many forms.