Rheumatism and rheumatoid arthritis

Last modified: December 17, 2018

The word rheumatism is not a single disease, but a collective term. Approximately 200 diagnoses count into the category of rheumatic diseases. What they all have in common is that they affect the joints and/or the connective tissue. This type of disease is also autoimmune, which means that the immune system has begun to attack the body’s own tissue. Examples of diseases in this category are rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and scleroderma. Here, we will mainly inform on the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.

Is rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis the same thing?

Rheumatism is, as seen above, not a single diagnosis – unlike osteoarthritis. However, the fact that many people today have difficulties distinguishing between different terms and diseases is not so strange. A long time ago, before we knew much about different diseases and what was causing them, pretty much every joint problem was called rheumatism. Progress in medical research has, however, clarified that there are several different diseases that depend on various things. These diseases also have different, although similar, symptoms.

Osteoarthritis is one of the diseases that was previously generally known as rheumatism, but that today has its own diagnosis. Osteoarthritis is often considered to be one of the rheumatic diseases, although this is somewhat disputable. Read more about osteoarthritis. If you use the term rheumatism to describe the disease rheumatoid arthritis, this is not the same thing as osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is, instead, caused by an autoimmune inflammation in the joints. More about the similarities and differences between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis is found here.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic, autoimmune disease. That means that it is a lifelong disease that is caused by the body’s immune system attacking the tissues in the body. The disease primarily affects the joints, but can also affect the pleura, pericardium, eyes, and blood vessels. Often, the smaller joints, such as fingers and feet, get affected first. However, how the disease manifests can vary from person to person. It is also common to have more or less trouble during different periods without apparent reason, so-called flare-ups. Because it is a chronic disease, fatigue is common, especially during the periods when symptoms are at their worst.

Signs of rheumatoid arthritis

There are some common signs of rheumatoid arthritis, but it is important to remember that the disease also manifests itself in different ways from person to person. The disease also occurs in flare-ups. This means that during certain periods of time, one might feel better or worse without any obvious reason.

Some common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are:
*persistent pain in the joints regardless of activity
*stiffness and soreness with a clear diurnal variation (mainly in the morning)
*significantly swollen joints
*fatigue that feels abnormal

Often, the symptoms occur symmetrically in the same joints on both sides of the body. The affected joints become hot and swollen by the chronic inflammation, known as synovitis. It is also common for the affected person to feel feverish and experience reduced appetite, much like during the flu. However, the symptoms last much longer – for months. As a result of this, some affected people lose weight.

Since rheumatoid arthritis does not only affect the joints in every case, but also other organs, symptoms can show in other places. For example, you can get inflammation of the pleura, pericardium, eyes, or blood vessels. Something that’s not uncommon is so-called rheumatic nodules. These are probably due to inflamed blood vessels in the corium. This is completely harmless, but can sometimes hurt.

Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis

Since rheumatoid arthritis does not have a cure, the treatment is, instead, targeted to slow down the disease and reduce the symptoms. The earlier the treatment gets started, the less changes you will have in the joints and the better results you will get. Therefore, it is important to seek care as soon as you suspect the disease.

The treatment consists of a combination of drugs, customized training, occupational therapy, and physical activity. Together, these methods should be able to reduce the pain and the inflammation, while retaining or increasing the function of the affected joints. The treatment is often coordinated by a medical team consisting of a doctor, nurse, physiotherapist, occupational therapist or a counsellor.

Physiotherapy in the form of customized exercises can help to both prevent and treat the symptoms. The exercises improve mobility, muscle strength, balance, fitness and coordination (motion control). How the training program is designed depends on the persons circumstances.

Drugs can also be used to reduce the symptoms. After consulting with a specialist in rheumatology, antirheumatic drugs can be added to the treatment program. There are several types of medications that can be used – and there have, in recent years, been major successes with effective drugs. These can be used either individually or in combination. However, drugs can cause severe side effects and must, therefore, be managed carefully by a specialist in rheumatology. In some cases, cortisone injections can be given as temporary relief.

Rheumatoid arthritis and anti-inflammatory diet

Since rheumatoid arthritis is so prevalent, there is also a lot of research surrounding the topic. Something that has been researched in several studies is, for example, eating an anti-inflammatory diet to reduce the symptoms of the condition. However, no one specific diet has proven to be most effective from a scientific point of view. For this reason, simply versatile and nutritious food is recommended. Here is more information about anti-inflammatory diets.