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An Overview of Rheumatic Diseases

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Rheumatic diseases are painful conditions usually caused by inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joints or muscles.

Some rheumatic diseases like osteoarthritis are the result of "wear and tear" to the joints. Other rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, happen when the immune system becomes hyperactive; the immune system attacks the linings of joints, causing joint pain, swelling, and destruction.

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Almost any joint can be affected in rheumatic disease. There are more than 100 rheumatic diseases but we'll focus on some of the common types.

Osteoarthritis

About 27 million Americans have osteoarthritis (OA), the "wear-and-tear" arthritis. OA causes damage to the cartilage over time. Cartilage is a material that cushions the end of bones and allows joints to move smoothly.

As cartilage of a joint wears down, this joint movement becomes painful or limited. 

OA can be a normal part of aging that can affect many different joints. However, it usually affects the knees, hips, lower back, neck, fingers, and feet.

The signs and symptoms of OA, depending on the joints involved, include:

  • Pain in joint
  • Joint swelling
  • Joint may be warm to touch
  • Joint stiffness
  • Muscle weakness and joint instability
  • Pain when walking
  • Difficulty gripping objects
  • Difficulty dressing or combing hair
  • Difficulty sitting or bending over 

To diagnose OA, your doctor will ask about your medical history and symptoms and do a physical exam. Blood tests may help rule out other types of arthritis or medical problems. A joint fluid sample from an affected joint may also be examined to eliminate other conditions.

Usually by the time someone with OA seeks treatment, there are changes visible on an X-ray of the joint. The X-ray may show narrowing of the joint space or the presence of bone spurs. In some cases, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may be done.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1.3 million Americans; about 75% of those affected are women.

In RA, the body's immune system attacks its own tissues, causing joint pain, swelling, and stiffness that can be severe. The condition can result in permanent joint damage and deformity.                                                       

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