Looking at the most common rheumatic diseases

November 12, 2012

Looking at the most common rheumatic diseases

Rheumatic disease can affect any of the joints in the human body.

Rheumatic disease refers to a group of painful conditions of the skeletal-muscular system; these conditions are generally the result of inflammation, swelling and pain in the joints or the muscles.

Causes of rheumatic disease

Some of the conditions within this category are the result of normal wear and tear to the joints, others are the result of an over active immune system which attacks the joint linings causing pain, swelling and deterioration of the joint structure.

Rheumatic diseases may affect almost any joint in the body – there are over 100 different diseases, several of which are more common and widely known.


Osteoarthritis is in the ‘wear and tear’ category of rheumatic disease. Osteoarthritis causes gradual damage to cartilage – the material which acts as a cushion at the ends of bones allowing smooth, free movement of the joints. As the cartilage begins to erode over time it may cause painful or limited movement in the affected joint.

Osteoarthritis is a normal part of the aging process and can affect any area of the body – most commonly though it affects the knees, hips, and the lumbar region of the back, the neck and fingers.

The symptoms of osteoarthritis may vary depending on which joint it affects, but may include some or all of the following -

  • Joint pain and/or stiffness

  • Joint swelling

  • Warmth around the joint area

  • Muscle weakness

  • Instability in the joint

  • Pain on walking

  • Difficulty gripping

  • Difficulty with everyday tasks such as dressing or hair brushing

  • Difficulty sitting or bending

Rheumatoid arthritis

Around 3/4 of those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis are women. This disease of the immune system can result in permanent joint damage and even deformity. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues; this results in severe joint pain, swelling and stiffness. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include -

  • Joint pain and swelling

  • Joint stiffness – particularly in the morning

  • Fatigue

  • Fever

  • Involvement of multiple joints – often in a symmetrical pattern

  • Involvement of various organs

  • Presence of rheumatoid nodules.


Lupus is another rheumatic disease of the immune system; this condition has no known cause and is notoriously difficult to diagnose. The signs and symptoms of lupus are quite varied and may or may not include the following -

  • Joint pain and stiffness

  • Fatigue

  • Rash – in particular the classic ‘butterfly rash’ across the cheeks

  • Hair loss

  • Sensitivity to sun

  • Reynaud’s phenomenon

  • Anemia or blood clots

  • Chest pain as the result of inflammation in the heart or lung linings

  • Involvement of internal organs such as the kidneys

  • Seizure or stroke

  • Ankylosing Spondylitis

This rheumatic disease is most often seen in young men under the age of 30. Ankylosing Spondylitis involves the joints at the base of the spine – the sacroiliac joints of the pelvis; the first symptom is generally a gradual development of pain in the lower back and buttocks. Other symptoms may include -

  • Increasing lower back pain which begins to move upwards in the spine

  • Pain between the shoulder blades and in the neck

  • Pain and stiffness in the back which is worse when at rest but improves after activity

  • After a period of between 5 and 10 years the pain may progress to the middle and upper back and neck area

  • As the disease progresses the stiffness in the spine may make performing everyday activities difficult

The diagnostic process of any of the rheumatic diseases is very similar – the medical practitioner will take a full medical history; perform a physical examination and subsequently order a series of blood and laboratory tests – some of which may be specific to the suspected condition – as well as X-rays and possibly an MRI scan.


Category: Articles