What Are Rheumatic Diseases?
Rheumatic diseases are characterized by inflammation that affects the connecting or supporting structures of the body — most commonly the joints, but also sometimes the tendons, ligaments, bones, and muscles. Some rheumatic diseases even affect the organs.
These diseases can ultimately cause loss of function in those body parts. Rheumatic diseases include arthritis, which literally means “joint inflammation” and itself encompasses more than 100 different disorders. Rheumatic diseases that primarily affect the spine are considered spondyloarthropathies. In all, rheumatic diseases affect more than 46 million Americans, including 294,000 children, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
Types of Rheumatic Diseases
Some of the most common rheumatic diseases include:
- Osteoarthritis, the most prevalent type of arthritis, which primarily affects and destroys cartilage, the soft tissue that cushions the ends of bones within joints
- Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium, a soft tissue that lines the joints, leading to inflammation
- Fibromyalgia, a chronic condition marked by tender points and localized pain throughout the musculoskeletal system
- Systemic lupus erythematosus, or simply lupus, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in numerous parts of the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, blood, lungs, heart, and brain
- Gout, a type of arthritis that develops when needle-like crystals of uric acid deposit in the joints, most often those of the big toe
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis, the most common form of arthritis in children, which may be accompanied by fevers and rashes
- Infectious arthritis, or arthritis that’s caused by an infection, such as Lyme disease or Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria behind gonorrhea
- Psoriatic arthritis, a type of arthritis (and also considered a spondlyoarthropathy) that affects the fingers and toes and is associated with the skin disease psoriasis
- Polymyositis, which affects the muscles and can affect the entire body
- Bursitis, an inflammation of the bursas small fluid-filled sacs that reduce friction between bones
- Ankylosing spondylitis, the most common spondyloarthropathy, which may affect the hips, shoulders, and knees, in addition to the spine
- iReactive arthritis, or Reiter’s syndrome, a spondlyoarthropathy that develops after an infection of the urinary tract, bowels, or other organs
- Scleroderma, or systemic sclerosis, an autoimmune rheumatic disease that leads to a thickening and tightening of the skin and inflammation and scarring in various other parts of the body, including the blood vessels, joints, and certain organs
- Polymyalgia rheumatica, which causes pain and stiffness in tendons, muscles, ligaments, and tissues around joints
Rheumatic Disease Causes and Risk Factors
Experts believe rheumatic diseases are caused by a combination of genes and environmental factors. In general, having certain gene variants can increase a person’s susceptibility to rheumatic diseases, and factors in the environment may trigger the onset of the disease. For instance, studies suggest that people with certain variations of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes — which help control immune responses — have an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. In these people, the disease may develop due to some kind of triggering event, such as hormonal spikes, infections from bacteria or viruses, or obesity.
Similarly, an inherited cartilage weakness combined with excessive joint stress may play a role in the development of osteoarthritis.
Various factors can put you at greater risk for developing one or more rheumatic diseases. For example:
- Osteoarthritis is more common in older adults than younger adults
- Women are far more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, fibromyalgia, and lupus
- Gout and spondyloarthropathies are more common in men
- Lupus most often affects African-Americans and Hispanics
- Obesity and smoking increases your risk for a number of rheumatic diseases
- Dietary factors may increase or decrease your risk for certain rheumatic diseases — gout is associated with diets high in purines, which are found in various types of meat
Rheumatic Disease Symptoms
The hallmark of these rheumatic diseases is inflammation. For arthritis, inflammation typically causes one or more symptoms in the joints, including:
- Stiffness, especially in the morning
- Warmth and redness
- Difficulty using the joint normally
Rheumatic diseases may produce a wide variety of other symptoms, such as:
- Eye inflammation or infections
- Rashes and sores
- Pain in the neck, spine, or back
- Difficulty taking a deep breath
- Muscle pain
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