Rheumatic diseases are inflammatory, autoimmune, and degenerative diseases that can affect the whole body.
Rheumatic diseases are more than just aches and pains. They can affect all age groups and vary in severity. They often involve body-wide immune dysregulation and systemic inflammation, in addition to specific flares.
In this article, we discuss the most common forms of rheumatic diseases.
There are more than 100 rheumatic diseases. In the United States alone, around 54 million adults and 300,000 children in the United States have a doctor-diagnosed rheumatic disease.
Rheumatic diseases can cause inflammation, tissue degeneration, and autoimmune dysfunction. In autoimmune conditions, your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues.
Rheumatic diseases tend to affect the following parts of the musculoskeletal system:
Rheumatic diseases, and the medical specialty of rheumatology, also include immune disorders that affect major organs.
Some of the most common symptoms of rheumatoid diseases include:
- aches and pains
- stiffness or limited range of motion
- feelings of tiredness or fatigue
- malaise or general feelings of being unwell
- weight loss
Each type of rheumatic disease can affect different parts of your body and have unique symptoms.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your joints. RA can affect multiple joints simultaneously. The joints in your hands, wrists, and knees are the most common targets.
When your immune system attacks these joints, it causes pain, inflammation, and stiffness. This can lead to degeneration of the joints. People with RA may lose joint function or even develop deformities in the affected joints.
With RA, pain and inflammation typically happen during periods known as flares or exacerbations. At other times the symptoms can be less severe or can completely go away (remission).
RA is a systemic disease and can affect major body organs such as the eyes, lungs, skin, heart, kidneys, and nervous and gastrointestinal systems. It can also affect the blood and cause anemia.
Learn more about RA in our dedicated hub.
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can cause inflammation throughout your body. With this disease, your immune system is responsible for attacking and affecting organs and tissues, such as your:
This can lead to inflammation, pain and sometimes damage to your organs, joints, and tissues.
Lupus can be a severe and sometimes life threatening disease. However, many people with lupus experience a mild version of it.
Learn more about the effects of lupus on the body here.
Scleroderma typically causes inflammation in your skin, connective joint tissues, and organs. Occasionally a person may experience hardening in their organs and joint tissues without outward skin symptoms.
Doctors classify scleroderma as either limited cutaneous scleroderma or diffuse cutaneous scleroderma. Limited cutaneous scleroderma typically affects the skin of your hands, neck, knees, and elbows. It doesn’t affect a person’s trunk, upper arms, or legs.
Diffuse cutaneous scleroderma occurs over larger areas of your body and can cause significant complications in your respiratory and cardiac systems.
People with scleroderma may experience restricted movement due to tightening and hardening of the skin. The skin may also look shiny because it’s so taut.
Sjogren’s disease is an autoimmune condition where your immune system attacks internal organs. The condition can affect your entire body but often occurs in your lungs and in the glands that produce saliva and tears, causing dry mouth and dry eyes.
Sjogren’s can also affect other parts of your body, including your joints, skin, and nerves. You may notice pain in your joints or muscles, dry skin, rashes, and neuropathy when this happens.
Besides causing pain and stiffness in your lower back and pelvis, AS can also cause inflammation in other large joints such as your hips, shoulders, and ribs. A major indicator of involvement is inflammation of the sacroiliac joints. These join your pelvis to your lower spine.
In more severe cases, the inflammation from AS can cause new bone to form on your spine, leading to stiffness and decreased range of motion. Inflammation and pain in your eyes can also occur.
Gout happens when uric acid builds up in your body. If you have too much uric acid, it can form crystals in certain parts of your body, particularly your skin and joints. Uric acid buildup in gout
People with gout experience joint pain, redness, and swelling. It often affects the big toe but can impact other joints as well.
Psoriatic arthritis can affect people who have psoriasis, an autoimmune condition affecting the skin. The condition often develops after several years of living with psoriasis. Doctors don’t know the causes of psoriatic arthritis.
In addition to joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, the following are common symptoms of psoriatic arthritis:
Infectious arthritis occurs due to bacterial, viral, or fungal infections. When an infection spreads to a joint, the immune system reacts to fight it. The resulting inflammation can cause pain and swelling, damaging the joint.
Infectious arthritis typically only occurs in one joint. The condition often affects a large joint such as the hip, knee, or shoulder. It tends to be more common in children, older adults, and people who misuse drugs.
- Oligoarthritis: This is the most common type of JIA and occurs in four or fewer joints.
- Polyarthritis: This JIA subtype occurs in five or more joints.
- Systemic: Systemic arthritis occurs across your body and may accompany a rash and fever.
- Psoriatic arthritis: Psoriatic arthritis causes scaly skin rashes and typical joint inflammation.
- Spondyloarthritis: This affects your muscles, tendons, and ligaments in joints.
- Undifferentiated: When a person’s arthritis symptoms don’t fall under other categories, doctors term it undifferentiated.
Most cases of JIA are mild, but severe cases can cause joint damage, stunted growth, uneven limbs, long-term pain, anemia, and eye inflammation.
Learn more about JIA symptoms here.
True to its name, reactive arthritis occurs when your body reacts to an infection elsewhere in your body. The condition often develops following infections with bacteria such as Salmonella, Chlamydia, or Campylobacter.
This reaction causes joint inflammation, typically in the lower part of your body and your spine, with the involvement of the sacroiliac joints. You may notice swelling, redness, and pain in the affected joints. Other symptoms can include conjunctivitis and urinary tract inflammation.
Polymyalgia rheumatica is an inflammatory condition that leads to pain or stiffness in your shoulders, neck, and hips.
It often occurs alongside giant cell arteritis (GCA) but can also occur independently. GCA is the inflammation of blood vessels in your head and neck. Around half of all people with GCA have polymyalgia rheumatica.
Symptoms are often worse in the morning. You may also have flu-like symptoms, including fever and weakness. The cause of this condition is unknown.
Vasculitis is a condition where inflammation occurs in the walls of the blood vessels. There are four main subtypes of vasculitis.
- ANCA-associated vasculitis: These types of vasculitis affect small-to-medium-sized blood vessels and can involve multiple organs.
- GCA and Takayasu arteritis: These types of vasculitis typically affect medium and large-sized blood vessels.
- Polyarteritis nodosa: This type of vasculitis causes inflammation and tissue death in medium-sized arteries.
- Kawasaki disease: This is a medium-vessel vasculitis that predominantly affects children.
Inflammation from vasculitis can cause a narrowing of the walls of blood vessels, which in turn may restrict blood flow. When certain tissues in your body don’t get enough blood, it can cause the tissue to die. Many types of vasculitis are associated with joint and muscle pain.
Genetic factors play a role in many rheumatic diseases, and having a family history of a condition often puts you at a higher risk.
Other factors can increase your risk of developing a rheumatic disease.
Risk increases with age for some conditions, such as RA and polymyalgia rheumatica. Other conditions are more common between early adulthood and middle age. These include:
- psoriatic arthritis
Several types of rheumatic diseases tend to be more common in people assigned female at birth, including:
- polymyalgia rheumatica
Other rheumatic diseases, such as gout and AS, tend to happen more frequently in people assigned male at birth.
Exposure to infection
Being exposed to infection is thought to influence or trigger disease development of some rheumatic conditions such as:
- polymyalgia rheumatica
Additionally, having rheumatic conditions such as RA, lupus, or scleroderma can put you at a risk of developing others, such as Sjogren’s syndrome or vasculitis.
If you have symptoms consistent with a rheumatic disease, it’s important to see your doctor. In many cases, a timely diagnosis can prevent a disease from becoming more serious or causing more severe symptoms.
Rheumatic diseases can cause additional damage to your joints, and other tissues can accumulate over time without proper treatment.
Rheumatic diseases are more than just aches and pains. They can affect most parts of your body, including your organs, muscles, bones, and joints. These types of diseases may even affect your skin and eyes.
Rheumatic diseases are inflammatory, and many are also autoimmune conditions. This means that your immune system mistakenly thinks your healthy tissue is a threat and attacks it. This can cause pain, swelling, tissue damage, and other complications.
Although the exact causes of many rheumatic diseases are unknown, they’re likely the result of a complex mix of genetics, environmental factors, and underlying conditions.
If you think you may have a rheumatic disease, make an appointment with a doctor. Early treatment is vital for preventing further damage or more severe complications. If you don’t already have a rheumatologist, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.