When you hear the word “rheumatism,” you may think of the aches and pains associated with arthritis. However, rheumatic diseases are much more than this.

According to a 2013 report from the American College of Rheumatology, rheumatic diseases:

  • impact approximately 7 million people in the United States, 300,000 of which are children
  • often develop in the prime of life: between early adulthood and middle age
  • affect 1 in 12 women and 1 in 20 men

So what exactly are rheumatic diseases? And what are their symptoms? Continue reading as we delve deeper to answer these questions.

Rheumatic diseases are inflammatory and often autoimmune in nature. That means that your immune system erroneously attacks healthy tissues.

Rheumatic diseases tend to affect the following parts of the musculoskeletal system:

You may see rheumatic diseases lumped under the general term “arthritis.” While rheumatic diseases do encompass some forms of arthritis, they also include many other conditions.

While rheumatologists do treat the most common type of arthritis — osteoarthritis — it isn’t considered a rheumatic disease. That’s because osteoarthritis is caused by the natural wearing down of cartilage and bone around joints as opposed to inflammation.

Some of the most common symptoms of rheumatoid diseases include:

Each type of rheumatic disease can affect different parts of your body and have unique symptoms. The autoimmune diseases not only have joint involvement but can affect many systems of the body.

Let’s look at some of the most common types of rheumatic diseases and the underlying causes.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your joints. Multiple joints can be affected at a time. The joints in your hands, wrists, and knees tend to be 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 eyes, lungs, skin, heart, kidneys, and nervous and gastrointestinal systems. It can also affect the blood and cause anemia.

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:

  • joints
  • heart
  • skin
  • kidneys
  • brain
  • blood
  • liver
  • lungs
  • hair
  • eyes

This can lead to inflammation, pain, and sometimes damage to organs, joints, and tissues.

Although lupus can be a severe and sometimes life-threatening disease, many people with lupus experience a mild version of it.

With scleroderma, the skin and other connective tissues of the body harden. This happens when too much collagen, a type of protein, is produced, causing it to accumulate in the body. It’s believed that the immune system plays a role in this.

In some people, scleroderma only affects the skin. But with other people, it can also affect the blood vessels, internal organs, and digestive tract. This is known as systemic scleroderma.

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.

Additionally, a condition called Raynaud’s disease may occur, in which fingers or toes become numb or painful due to stress or cold temperatures.

Another autoimmune condition that causes Raynaud’s and is on the scleroderma spectrum and is known as the CREST syndrome. Patients must have certain criteria for this diagnosis and they are:

  • calcinosis: deposition of calcium in the skin
  • Raynaud’s disease: cold or stress sensitivity with color changes of extremities
  • esophageal dysmotility: difficulty swallowing
  • telangiectasias: dilation of small, spider-like veins that blanch with pressure

Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune condition where your immune system attacks the glands that produce saliva and tears. The main symptoms are dry mouth and dry eyes.

Sjogren’s syndrome can also affect other parts of the body including the joints, skin, and nerves. When this happens, you may notice pain in your joints or muscles, dry skin, rashes and neuropathy.

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of inflammatory arthritis that targets your spine, causing long-term stiffness, and bony proliferation along the spine leading to immobility.

Besides causing pain and stiffness in the lower back and pelvis, it can also cause inflammation in other large joints such as the hips, shoulders, and ribs. A major indicator of involvement is inflammation of the sacroiliac joints.

In more severe cases, the inflammation from AS can cause new bone to form on the spine, leading to stiffness and decreased range of motion. Inflammation and pain of the 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 the skin and joints.

People with gout experience joint pain, redness, and swelling. It often affects the big toe, but can impact other joints as well. An attack of gout, treated properly, can resolve within a week.

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. What causes it is unknown.

In addition to joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, the following are common signs of psoriatic arthritis:

Infectious, or septic, arthritis is caused by 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, leading to damage 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.

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is a type of arthritis that happens in children. Similar to RA, it’s caused by the immune system attacking the joints and surrounding tissues. It most often causes joint pain, stiffness, and warm, swollen joints.

Most cases of JIA are mild, but severe cases can cause joint damage, stunted growth, uneven limbs, long-term pain, anemia, and eye inflammation.

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 the body and the spine with 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 the shoulders, neck, and hips. 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 the walls of the blood vessels become inflamed. When multiple vessels and organ systems are involved, it’s called systemic vasculitis.

Inflammation from vasculitis can cause a narrowing of the walls of blood vessels, which in turn may restrict blood flow. When certain tissues in the 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. In some cases, specific genes have been identified that are associated with a condition. In other cases, having a family history of a condition puts you at a higher risk.

There are also other factors that can increase your risk of developing a rheumatic disease. This includes your:

Age

For some conditions, such as RA and polymyalgia rheumatica, risk increases with age. Other conditions are more common between early adulthood and middle age. These include:

  • lupus
  • scleroderma
  • psoriatic arthritis
  • ankylosing spondylitis

Sex

Several types of rheumatic diseases tend to be more common in women including:

  • RA
  • lupus
  • scleroderma
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • polymyalgia rheumatica

Other rheumatic diseases, such as gout and ankylosing spondylitis, tend to happen more frequently in men.

Exposure to infection

Being exposed to an infection is thought to influence or trigger disease development of some rheumatic conditions such as:

  • lupus
  • scleroderma
  • polymyalgia rheumatica

Underlying conditions

Having high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, diabetes, obesity, early menopause, and kidney disease can put you at an increased risk for gout.

Additionally, having rheumatic conditions like RA, lupus, or scleroderma can put you at a risk of developing others, such as Sjogren’s syndrome or vasculitis.

If you have symptoms that are 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.

If a rheumatic disease is left untreated, additional damage to your joints and other tissues can accumulate over time.

Rheumatic diseases are more than just aches and pains. They can, in fact, affect most parts of your body including your organs, muscles, and bones, as well as your joints. These types of diseases may even affect your skin and eyes.

Rheumatic diseases are inflammatory in nature and many are also autoimmune conditions. This means that your immune system mistakenly thinks that your healthy tissue is a threat, and it attacks it. This can cause pain, swelling, tissue damage, and other complications.

Although the exact causes of many rheumatic diseases are unknown, it’s 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 your doctor. Early treatment is vital for preventing further damage or more severe complications.