Rheumatic diseases

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 4, 2016
StartDiseasesRheumatic diseases

Rheumatic diseases affect the musculoskeletal system which includes muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissues. There are hundreds of rheumatic diseases including osteoporosis, tendinitis, fibromyalgia, and various forms of arthritis. These diseases cause pain and inflammation in the affected areas which reduce range of motion and function of the joints and can lead to disability and reduced quality of life.


Definition & Facts

Rheumatic diseases affect the musculoskeletal system including the muscles, bones, joints, connective tissue, and internal organs. Out of all disease groups, rheumatic diseases are the most common in the industrialized world, with a third of individuals being affected by them in their lifetime.

They affect all ages and races, including children, though some populations may be more susceptible to certain diseases than others. Hundreds of different kinds exist, including osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, gout, tendinitis, and lupus.

Some of the diseases are degenerative or inflammatory, classified by stiffness and inflammation of the joints as they become damaged by wear. Other forms of these diseases are autoimmune diseases, caused by the immune system attacking healthy cells and tissues. This is the case with lupus. The most common symptoms are pain and inflammation in the joints and reduced range of motion and function in one or more areas.

Symptoms & Complaints

Signs of rheumatic disease are diverse and depend on the type of disease. Common symptoms of arthritic forms of these diseases, such as osteoarthritis, include chronic joint pain and tenderness; inflammation signified by swelling, stiffness, and redness of the joints; reduced flexibility or range of motion in the joints; fatigue; and weakness. Osteoporosis is also common, causing bone loss and increased porosity, decrease in height, and pain.

Autoimmune rheumatic disorders like lupus and fibromyalgia may present similar symptoms but also affect internal organs. Symptoms of these include fatigue, rashes, sun sensitivity, hair loss, chest pain due to inflammation in the lungs and heart, and kidney problems in addition to joint pain and stiffness.

If untreated, some rheumatic diseases can affect longevity and quality of life. Daily tasks like walking, cooking, and hygiene can be affected due to decreased mobility and flexibility. These diseases can result in disability if deterioration of the spine, knees, or hips goes untreated.

As these conditions are chronic and will remain with an individual for the rest of their lives, early diagnosis and treatment are important in order to prevent further damage and maintain one's quality of life.


It is not known exactly what the cause for most types of rheumatic disease is, though age, weight, smoking, genetic factors, environmental factors, and occupations or lifestyles which lead to overuse and damage to the joints are known to play a role in increasing the risk of developing these diseases.

Trauma, infection, hormones, metabolic problems, and nervous system problems can also result in rheumatic diseases. Older individuals and women are more at risk for certain types such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. 

Diagnosis & Tests

Rheumatic disease may be diagnosed by a general practitioner or a rheumatologist. Medical history, physical examinations, laboratory tests of the blood and synovial fluid (a fluid present in the joints that aids in lubrication), and imaging tests such as X-rays can be used to confirm a diagnosis and determine the type of disease present.

Different tests and several consultations may be needed in order to obtain an accurate diagnosis. These tests may be used throughout treatment to examine the effects of treatment and monitor disease progression. These diseases share symptoms with other health conditions, so it is important to seek out a professional for proper diagnosis.

Treatment & Therapy

Various treatment options commonly consist of medications to manage pain, maintain mobility, and control symptoms. Acupuncture, alternative treatments, and surgical procedures such as joint replacements may be used. Heat therapy and cold therapy may be used to reduce inflammation, and mobility aids like braces and splints can be used to support weak joints. Canes and orthotic shoe inserts can also be used to assist with mobility and reduce the stress on the affected joints.

Doctors may also suggest lifestyle changes such as exercise and a healthy diet to reduce symptoms. Exercise can help increase flexibility and alleviate pain and stiffness. It can also be used for weight loss and muscle development which reduces stress on the joints. Options such as walking, stretching, weight lifting, and swimming may be suggested.

Medications may be prescribed to manage symptoms, though none exist as a cure for these diseases. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID's) and corticosteroids may help reduce inflammation and pain.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Certain individuals are genetically predisposed to rheumatic diseases which can be triggered by environmental and lifestyle factors leading to excessive wear, overuse, or injury of the joints. Lifestyle modifications may reduce the risk of rheumatic disease in some groups.

Refraining from smoking tobacco or quitting smoking, moderating alcohol consumption, reducing exposure to inhaled pollutants such as traffic pollution and factory dust, maintaining a healthy diet to include reducing the intake of soda and salt, and exercising to build strength and flexibility may reduce risk.

Early screening to identify individual risk and likelihood of developing rheumatic disease can allow for preventative measures to be taken. Preventative strategies can alleviate the burden of these diseases, which result in loss of productivity and disability for over 46 million Americans.