Inflammatory rheumatism is a generic term used to cover dozens of different health conditions, most commonly arthritis. Rheumatism refers to diseases that inflame joints, muscles, and connective tissues. Skin and other organs can also be affected.
Many rheumatic diseases are autoimmune, meaning your body’s immune system attacks its own healthy bones and tissues. Because of this, rheumatic conditions are often chronic and long term, although they can be treated and managed.
While many inflammatory rheumatic conditions have shared or similar symptoms, there are key differences. We’ll go over the most common types of rheumatic diseases, including symptoms and treatment options.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes swollen and inflamed joints. In people with RA, the immune system attacks the lining of your joints, which can be painful.
Over time, RA can also cause your joints to become permanently damaged by destroying bone and cartilage, and weakening surrounding muscles and ligaments. Its effects are usually isolated to the body’s smaller joints, such as the knuckles in your hands or toes.
RA can also have
- blood vessels
The first noticeable symptoms of RA are usually sore and stiff joints in the hands or feet.
Gout is an inflammatory disease that usually affects one joint, and occurs in flares. Gout can be triggered when too many uric acid crystals build up in your body’s tissues around a joint. These needle-shaped crystals cause pain and inflammation in the area.
Gout often develops in a big toe, but it can flare up in other joints, too. It leads to swelling, redness, and a hot feeling. If the condition goes untreated for too long, hard nodules known as tophi can form from the crystals. Uric acid crystals can also lead to reduced kidney function.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH),
- drinking alcohol
- drinking beverages with high-fructose corn syrup
- getting older
- being overweight or having obesity
- high blood pressure
- chronic kidney disease
Lupus is an autoimmune disease. It’s more common in people assigned female at birth. However, lupus disease severity is worse in men.
Like many rheumatisms, lupus often comes and goes in flares, or periods where symptoms are particularly worse.
- muscle and joint pain
- skin rashes (most notably the malar rash)
- chest pain or breathing difficulty
- hair loss
- ulcers in the mouth
Scleroderma tricks your body into thinking you’re injured, stimulating collagen production. Collagen is a protein necessary for maintaining and repairing our body’s tissues. The overproduction of collagen creates hard, tight patches of skin.
Localized scleroderma mostly affects skin, causing patches or lines of thickened skin that may be discolored. Systemic scleroderma can cause calcium deposits, digestive issues, and other skin problems. Many people with scleroderma also experience fatigue.
Sjögren’s syndrome causes a lack of sufficient moisture in the eyes and mouth. The body’s immune system wrongly attacks healthy cells in glands that produce saliva and tears, causing dryness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports women are
In addition to dry mouth and dry eyes, Sjögrens can also cause:
- muscle and joint pain
- dry skin and rashes
- vaginal dryness
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.
There are many different types of vasculitis, including giant cell arteritis (temporal arteritis) and leukocytoclastic or hypersensitivity vasculitis. Symptoms vary by type, and vasculitis is usually treated with medication.
- muscle or joint aches
- loss of appetite, weight loss
- skin problems (purple or red bumps, dot clusters, hives)
- eye problems (blindness in one eye can be the first sign of giant cell arteritis)
- nausea and vomiting
- sinus infections
- heart palpitations
It’s important to work closely with your rheumatologist. Many rheumatic conditions can worsen quickly if untreated, and cause long-term health complications.
Treatment often includes a combination of:
- physical therapy
- lifestyle changes
Medications used for rheumatisms include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These are over-the-counter medications that can help with pain and reduce inflammation. Common brands include Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen).
- Corticosteroids. Taken orally, steroids can reduce immune system activity and lower overall inflammation. Some steroids can be injected for more localized effects. This class of drugs includes Prednisone and Cortisone. They require a prescription from your doctor.
- Immunosuppressive drugs. These medications include some corticosteroids but are a wider class, including biologic medications like Humira (adalimumab) and Enbrel (etanercept). Immunosuppressives reduce immune system activity to prevent damage and inflammation. However, they can have significant side effects, especially if used long term. You can become more susceptible to opportunistic infections.
Gout can be treated with the prescription anti-inflammatory 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.
Certain rheumatic diseases can be debilitating if left untreated or if they progress to a severe stage. This can prevent you from caring after yourself, working, or being mobile. For some people, especially older adults, mobility aids or caregivers may be necessary in addition to treatment approaches.
Rarely, surgery is advised.
Genetics is a primary risk factor for most rheumatic conditions. Some key biomarkers can be tested for in blood.
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, but estrogen may play a role.
Rheumatic disorders can occur at any time, although the risk for many increases with age.
Environmental triggers can also quicken or worsen onset and disease progression. A nutritious diet and regular exercise are important components of prevention and management.
Sometimes joint pain may be due to an acute injury, like a twisted ankle, and resolve promptly. However, prolonged or worsening joint pain should always be evaluated by a doctor. Other troubling symptoms, including skin irritation or rashes, should also be checked out.
If you have a history of rheumatism in your family, it’s important to talk to your doctor about risk factors.
When screening you for a rheumatic disease, your doctor will do a physical exam to check for signs of swelling and hot spots. They may order X-rays or an MRI to look for visible signs of damage. Blood tests are also an important piece of the puzzle for many rheumatic conditions, including RA, lupus, and gout.
For many types of autoimmune diseases, while there is no cure, prompt treatment can prevent and lessen flares.
Inflammatory rheumatisms refer to a wide class of autoimmune diseases that affect joints and muscles. This includes RA, lupus, scleroderma and many others.
In addition to their defining factors, these conditions often share some general symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, and skin manifestations. Many rheumatisms affect cis women or people assigned female at birth the most. Genetics is also a key risk factor.
While rheumatic diseases can’t be cured, doctors can treat symptoms with medication, physical therapy, and in rare cases, surgery. It’s possible to live a healthy life while managing your condition.