What Are Rheumatic Diseases?

Rheumatic diseases affect your joints and muscles. Some, like osteoarthritis, are the result of wear and tear. Others, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are immune system problems.

Your treatment plan will likely include medications, regular exercise, a healthy diet, stress management, and rest.

A doctor who specializes in these conditions, called a rheumatologist, can help you find the best ways to manage your condition.

Years ago, conditions like this fell under the broad heading of rheumatism. Now there are more than 100 distinct rheumatic diseases. Get to know the most common ones.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

What it is: Osteoarthritis damages cartilage, the cushiony material on the end of bones. As it wears down, joints hurt and it becomes harder to move. It usually affects the knees, hips, lower back, neck, fingers, and feet.

Symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Stiffness

Muscle weakness can make joints unstable. Depending on what parts of the body it affects, OA can make it hard to walk, grip objects, dress, comb hair, or sit.

Diagnosis: Your doctor will ask about your medical history and symptoms. You’ll also get a physical exam. You may also need to get blood tests or let your doctor take a sample of fluid from an affected joint.

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

Lupus

What it is: Lupus (also called SLE or systemic lupus erythematosus) is an autoimmune disease. It can affect many organs in your body.

Symptoms:

Diagnosis: Your doctor will ask about your medical history, do a physical exam, and order lab tests of blood and urine samples. One blood test is the antinuclear antibody test (ANA). Most people with lupus have a positive ANA blood test.

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Ankylosing Spondylitis

What it is: Ankylosing spondylitis usually starts gradually as lower back pain. It usually involves the joints where the spine attaches to the pelvis, known as the sacroiliac joints.

Ankylosing spondylitis is more common in young men, especially from the teenage years to age 30.

Symptoms:

  • Gradual pain in the lower back and buttocks
  • Lower back pain that worsens and works its way up the spine
  • Pain felt between the shoulder blades and in the neck
  • Pain and stiffness in the back, especially at rest and when getting up
  • Pain and stiffness get better after activity
  • Pain in the middle back and then upper back and neck (after 5-10 years)

If the condition worsens, your spine may become stiffer. It may become hard to bend for everyday activities.

Diagnosis: Your doctor will give you a physical exam and ask you about your medical history. You may get X-rays of your back, looking at the sacroiliac joints. A blood test for a protein called HLA-B27 may help confirm a diagnosis.

Sjogren's Syndrome

What it is: Sjogren's syndrome causes parts of your body to dry out, like the eyes or mouth. Some people also have RA and lupus. Others just have Sjogren’s. The cause is unknown, but it happens when your immune system attacks those body parts. It's more common in women than men.

Symptoms:

Diagnosis: Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your medical history. You may also get other tests. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may do a biopsy, taking tissue from your inner lip to check in a lab.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on May 09, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Arthritis Foundation: "Osteoarthritis," "Rheumatoid Arthritis," "Ankylosing Spondylitis," "Systemic Lupus Erythematotus,"  "Lupus: What are the Effects?" "Ankylosing Spondylitis: How is it Diagnosed?"

American College of Rheumatology: "Osteoarthritis," "Rheumatoid Arthritis," "Systemic Lupus Erythematotus,"  "Sjogren's Syndrome," "Living Well with a Rheumatic Disease."

McIlwain, H. and Bruce, D. Pain Free Arthritis, Holt, 2003.

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