The word rheumatism does not encompass a single disease, it is a collective term. The category of rheumatic diseases includes about 200 diagnoses. The common factor is that they affect the joints and/or the connective tissue. This type of disease is also an autoimmune disorder, which means that the immune system has started to attack the tissue in its own body. Examples of diseases in this category are rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and scleroderma. Here, we will mainly focus on providing information about the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.
Are rheumatism and osteoarthritis the same thing?
As stated above, rheumatism is not an individual diagnosis – as opposed to osteoarthritis. However, it is not surprising that many people find it difficult to distinguish between the different terms and diseases. A long time ago, before we knew much about the different diseases and what caused them, essentially all joint problems were known as rheumatism. Progress in medical research has made it clear that there are several different diseases with different causes. These diseases also have different symptoms, even if they are similar.
Osteoarthritis is one of the diseases which used to be called rheumatism in a general way, but today it has a separate diagnosis. However, osteoarthritis is often included in the group of rheumatic diseases, although this controversial. Read more about osteoarthritis. If the term rheumatism is used to refer to the disease rheumatoid arthritis, that is not the same thing as osteoarthritis either. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an autoimmune inflammation of the joints. There is more information about the similarities and differences between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis here.
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, autoimmune disease. This means that it is a life-long disease caused by the body’s immune system starting to attack the tissue of its own body. The disease mainly affects the joints, but it can also affect the pleura, the pericardium, the eyes and the blood vessels. Smaller joints are often affected first, such as fingers and feet. However, the way the disease presents can vary from person to person. It is also common to have more or fewer symptoms for different periods for no apparent reason, known as flare ups. As it is a chronic disease it is also common to be exceptionally tired, mainly in periods when the symptoms are worst.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
These are certain common signs of rheumatoid arthritis, but it is important to remember that the disease also presents differently depending on the person. The disease can also flare up. This means that it may feel better or worse without any clear reason in certain periods.
Some common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
• persistent pain in the joints regardless of activity
• stiffness and soreness with a significant variation during the day (mainly in the morning)
• significantly swollen joints
• fatigue that does not feel normal
The symptoms often occur symmetrically in the same joints on both sides of the body. The affected joints will also become hot and swollen from the chronic inflammation, known as synovitis. It is also common for the affected person to feel like they have a fever and loss of appetite, similar to influenza. However, the symptoms last considerably longer – for months. As a result of this, many sufferers lose weight.
Since rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t only affect the joints but also other organs, people also have symptoms from other places. For example, a person may have inflammation of the pleura, pericardium, eyes or blood vessels. It is also not unusual to have rheumatic lumps, known as rheumatoid nodules. These are probably caused by inflammation of the blood vessels in the skin. They are completely harmless, but can sometimes hurt.
Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
It is not possible to cure rheumatoid arthritis, so treatment focuses on slowing down the progress of the disease and reducing the symptoms. The earlier treatment is started, the fewer changes to the joints and the better the results. It is therefore important to seek treatment as soon as a person suspects they might have the disease.
Treatment consists of a combination of medication, customized training, occupational therapy and physical activity. Together, these methods should reduce pain and inflammation at the same time as retaining or increasing function in the affected joints. The treatment is often coordinated by a medical team consisting of a doctor, a nurse, a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist and a counselor.
Physiotherapy in the form of customized exercises can help to both prevent and treat the condition. Exercises improve mobility, muscle strength, balance, fitness and coordination (motion control). The design of the training program will depend on the individual circumstances.
Medication may also be used to reduce the symptoms. After consulting with a specialist in rheumatology, anti-rheumatoid medication may be prescribed. There are several types of medicines that can be used – and in recent years major progress has been made with effective medicines. These can either be used separately or in combination. However, medicines may have severe side effects and must therefore be handled carefully by a specialist rheumatologist. In some cases, cortisone injections may be given as a temporary relief.
Rheumatoid arthritis and an anti-inflammatory diet
As rheumatoid arthritis is so widespread, there is a lot of research related to it. For example, several studies have examined the effect of an anti-inflammatory diet on rheumatoid arthritis. However, from a purely scientific perspective, no specific diet has been shown to be more effective. For this reason, simply a varied and nutritional diet is recommended.