Questions and Answers About Arthritis and Rheumatic Diseases
This fact sheet answers basic questions about arthritis and rheumatic diseases. The National Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NAMSIC) has other fact sheets that provide more information about specific forms of arthritis and rheumatic diseases. NAMSIC also has information about exercise and arthritis and diet and arthritis.
At the end is a list of key words to help you understand the terms used in this fact sheet. If you have further questions after reading this fact sheet, you may wish to discuss them with your doctor.
What Are Rheumatic Diseases and What Is Arthritis?
There are more than 100 rheumatic diseases. These diseases may cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in joints and other supporting structures of the body such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Some rheumatic diseases can also affect other parts of the body, including various internal organs.
Many people use the word “arthritis” to refer to all rheumatic diseases. However, the word literally means joint inflammation; that is, swelling, redness, heat, and pain caused by tissue injury or disease in the joint. The many different kinds of arthritis comprise just a portion of the rheumatic diseases. Some rheumatic diseases are described as connective tissue diseases because they affect the body’s connective tissue—the supporting framework of the body and its internal organs. Others are known as autoimmune diseases because they are caused by a problem in which the immune system harms the body’s own healthy tissues. Examples of some rheumatic diseases are provided on the next page.
Examples of Rheumatic Diseases
What Causes Rheumatic Disease?
The causes of rheumatic diseases vary depending on the type of disease. Researchers have pinpointed the cause or causes of some rheumatic diseases, such as infectious arthritis and gout.
The causes of most rheumatic diseases are still under investigation. In osteoarthritis, excessive stress on the joint, from repeated injury or inherited cartilage weakness, may play a role. In lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma, the combination of genetic factors that determine susceptibility, the influence of certain hormones, and environmental triggers are believed to be important.
Scientists are also studying the risk factors that determine why some people develop rheumatic diseases and others do not. For example, being overweight increases the likelihood that a person will develop osteoarthritis. The chance of developing osteoarthritis also increases with age. Genes and family history play a role in many rheumatic diseases including gout, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, scleroderma, and some others.
Certain rheumatic conditions, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and fibromyalgia, are more common among women (see below for details). This indicates that hormones or other male-female differences play a role in the development of these conditions.
Who Is Affected by Arthritis and Rheumatic Conditions?
An estimated 40 million people in the United States have arthritis or other rheumatic conditions. By the year 2020, this number is expected to reach 59 million. Rheumatic diseases are the leading cause of disability among adults age 65 and older.
Rheumatic diseases affect people of all races and ages. Some rheumatic conditions are more common among certain populations. For example:
Common Symptoms of Arthritis
What Are the Symptoms of Arthritis?
Different types of arthritis have different symptoms. In general, people who have arthritis have pain and stiffness in the joints. Some of the more common symptoms are listed in the box on this page. Early diagnosis and treatment help decrease further joint damage and help control symptoms of arthritis and many other rheumatic diseases.
How Are Rheumatic Diseases Diagnosed?
Diagnosing rheumatic diseases can be difficult because some symptoms and signs are common to many different diseases. A general practitioner or family doctor may be able to evaluate a patient or refer him or her to a rheumatologist: a doctor who specializes in treating arthritis and other rheumatic diseases.
The doctor will review the patient’s medical history, conduct a physical examination, and obtain laboratory tests and X rays or other imaging tests. The doctor may need to see the patient more than once to make an accurate diagnosis.
It is vital for people with joint pain to give the doctor a complete medical history. Answers to the following questions will help the doctor make an accurate diagnosis:
It may be helpful for people to keep a daily journal that describes the pain. Patients should write down what the affected joint looks like, how it feels, how long the pain lasts, and what they were doing when the pain started.
Physical Examination and Laboratory Tests
The doctor will examine all of the patient’s joints for redness, warmth, deformity, ease of movement, and tenderness. Because some forms of arthritis, such as lupus, may affect other organs, a complete physical examination including the heart, lungs, abdomen, nervous system, and eyes, ears, and throat may be necessary. The doctor may order some laboratory tests to help confirm a diagnosis. Samples of blood, urine, or synovial
Common Laboratory Tests
Work With Your Doctor To Limit Your Pain
The role you play in developing your treatment plan is very important. It is vital for you to have a good relationship with your doctor so that you can work together. You should not be afraid to ask questions about your condition or treatment. You must understand the treatment plan and tell the doctor whether or not it is helping you. Studies have shown that patients who are well informed and participate actively in their own care experience less pain and make fewer visits to the doctor than other patients do.
X Rays and Other Imaging Procedures
To see what the joint looks like inside, the doctor may order X rays or other imaging procedures. X rays provide an image of the bones, but they do not show the cartilage, muscles, and ligaments. Other noninvasive imaging methods such as computed tomography (CT or CAT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and arthrography (joint X ray) show the whole joint. The doctor may also use an arthroscope (a small, flexible tube that transmits the image of the inside of a joint to a video screen) to examine damage to a joint. The arthroscope is inserted into the affected joint through a very small incision in the skin. This procedure, called arthroscopy, allows the doctor to see inside the joint. Doctors also use arthroscopy to perform surgery for some types of joint injury.
What Are the Treatments?
Treatments for arthritis include rest and relaxation, exercise, proper diet, medication, and instruction about the proper use of joints and ways to conserve energy. Other treatments include the use of pain relief methods and assistive devices, such as splints or braces. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary. The doctor and the patient work together to develop a treatment plan that helps the patient maintain or improve his or her lifestyle. Treatment plans usually combine several types of treatment and vary depending on the rheumatic condition and the patient.
Rest, Exercise, and Diet
People who have a rheumatic disease should develop a comfortable balance between rest and activity. One sign of many rheumatic conditions is fatigue. Patients must pay attention to signals from their bodies. For example, when experiencing pain or fatigue, it is important to take a break and rest. Too much rest, however, may cause muscles and joints to become stiff.
Physical exercise can reduce joint pain and stiffness and increase flexibility, muscle strength, and endurance. It also helps with weight reduction and contributes to an improved sense of well-being. Before starting any exercise program, people with arthritis should talk with their doctor. People with arthritis can participate in a variety of sports and exercise programs. Exercises that doctors often recommend include
Another important part of a treatment program is a well-balanced diet. Along with exercise, a well-balanced diet helps people manage their body weight and stay healthy. Weight control is important to people who have arthritis because extra weight puts extra pressure on some joints and can aggravate many types of arthritis. Diet is especially important for people who have gout. People with gout should avoid alcohol and foods that are high in purines, such as organ meats (liver, kidney), sardines, anchovies, and gravy.
A variety of medications are used to treat rheumatic diseases. The type of medication depends on the rheumatic disease and on the individual patient. At this time, the medications used to treat most rheumatic diseases do not provide a cure, but rather limit the symptoms of the disease. The one exception is treatments for infectious arthritis. If caught early enough, arthritis associated with an infection (such as Lyme disease) can usually be cured with antibiotics.
Medications commonly used to treat rheumatic diseases provide relief from pain and inflammation. In some cases, the medication may slow the course of the disease and prevent further damage to joints or other parts of the body. This fact sheet describes the medications most commonly used to treat pain and inflammation.
The doctor may delay using medications until a definite diagnosis is made, because medications can hide important symptoms (such as fever and swelling) and thereby interfere with diagnosis. Patients taking any medication, either prescription or over-the-counter, should always follow the doctor’s instructions. The doctor should be notified immediately if the medicine is making the symptoms worse or causing other problems, such as an upset stomach, nausea, or headache. The doctor may be able to change the dosage or medicine to reduce these side effects.
Analgesics (pain relievers) such as aspirin; other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) such as ibuprofen (Motrin,¹ Advil, Nuprin); and acetaminophen (Tylenol) are used to reduce the pain caused by many rheumatic conditions. Aspirin and NSAID’s have the added benefit of decreasing the inflammation associated with arthritis. Certain analgesics, such as aspirin and NSAID’s, can have side effects, such as stomach irritation, that can be reduced by changing the dosage or the medication. The dosage will vary depending on the particular illness and the overall health of the patient. The doctor and patient must work together to determine which analgesic to use and the appropriate amount. If analgesics do not ease the pain, the doctor may use other medications, depending on the diagnosis.
¹ Brand names included in this fact sheet are provided as examples only, and their inclusion does not mean that these products are endorsed by the National Institutes of Health or any other Government agency. Also, if a particular brand name is not mentioned, this does not mean that the product is unsatisfactory.
Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, cortisone, solumedrol, and hydrocortisone, are used to treat many rheumatic conditions because they decrease inflammation and suppress the immune system. The dosage of these medications will vary depending on the diagnosis and the patient; again, the patient and doctor must work together to determine what dose is best for the patient.
Corticosteroids can be given by mouth, in creams applied to the skin, or by injection. Short-term side effects of corticosteroids include swelling, increased appetite, weight gain, and emotional ups and downs. These side effects generally stop when the drug is stopped. It can be dangerous to stop taking corticosteroids suddenly, so it is very important that the doctor and patient work together when changing the corticosteroid dose. Side effects that may occur after long-term use of corticosteroids include stretch marks, excessive hair growth, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, damage to the arteries, high blood sugar, infections, and cataracts.
Although some rheumatic diseases respond to analgesics and corticosteroids, others may not. Rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, scleroderma, and fibromyalgia are some of the rheumatic diseases that routinely require other medications; these are prescribed to slow the course of the disease or to treat disease-specific symptoms.
Heat and Cold Therapies
Heat and cold can both be used to reduce the pain and inflammation of arthritis. Both therapies come in different forms, and the patient and doctor can determine which form works best. Studies have shown heat and cold therapies to be equally effective in reducing pain, although they are usually avoided in acute gout.
Heat therapy increases blood flow, tolerance for pain, and flexibility. Heat therapy can involve treatment with paraffin wax, microwaves, ultrasound, or moist heat. Physical therapists are needed to apply paraffin wax, or use microwave or ultrasound therapy, but patients can apply moist heat themselves. Some ways to apply moist heat include placing warm towels or hot packs on the inflamed joint or taking a warm bath or shower.
Cold therapy numbs the nerves around the joint (which reduces pain) and relieves inflammation and muscle spasms. Cold therapy can involve cold packs, ice massage, soaking in cold water, or over-the-counter sprays and ointments that cool the skin and joints.
Hydrotherapy, Mobilization Therapy, and Relaxation Therapy
Hydrotherapy involves exercising or relaxing in warm water, which helps relax tense muscles and relieve pain. Exercising in a large pool is easier because water takes some weight off painful joints. This type of exercise improves muscle strength and joint movement.
Mobilization therapies include traction (gentle, steady pulling), massage, and manipulation (using the hands to restore normal movement to stiff joints). When done by a trained professional, these methods can help control pain, increase joint motion, and improve muscle and tendon flexibility.
Relaxation therapy helps reduce pain by teaching people various ways to release muscle tension throughout the body. In one method of relaxation therapy, known as progressive relaxation, the patient tightens a muscle group and then slowly releases the tension. Doctors and physical therapists can teach patients progressive relaxation and other relaxation techniques.
The most common assistive devices for treating arthritis pain are splints and braces, which are used to support weakened joints or allow them to rest. Some of these devices prevent the joint from moving; others allow some movement. A splint or brace should be used only when recommended by a doctor or therapist, who will show the patient the correct way to put the device on, ensure that it fits properly, and explain when and for how long it should be worn. The incorrect use of a splint or brace can cause joint damage, stiffness, and pain.
A person with arthritis can use other kinds of devices to ease the pain. For example, the use of a cane when walking can reduce some of the weight placed on an arthritic knee or hip. A shoe insert (orthotic) can ease the pain of walking caused by arthritis of the foot or knee.
Surgery may be required to repair damage to a joint after trauma (a torn meniscus, for example) or to restore function or relieve pain in a joint damaged by arthritis. The doctor may recommend arthroscopic surgery, bone fusion (surgery in which bones in the joint are fused or joined together), or arthroplasty (also known as total joint replacement, in which the damaged joint is removed and replaced with an artificial one).
Myths About Treating Arthritis
At this time, the only type of arthritis that can be cured is that caused by infections. Although symptoms of other types of arthritis can be effectively managed with rest, exercise, and medication, there are no cures. Some people claim to have been cured by treatment with herbs, oils, chemicals, special diets, radiation, or other products. However, there is no scientific evidence that such treatments are helpful in patients with arthritis and, moreover, they may actually cause harm with the development of side effects. Patients should talk to their doctor before using any therapy that has not been prescribed or recommended by the health care team caring for the patient.
What Can Be Done To Help?
Studies show that an estimated 18 percent of Americans who have arthritis or other rheumatic conditions believe that their condition limits their activities. People with arthritis may find that they can no longer participate in some of their favorite activities, which can affect their overall well-being. Even when arthritis impairs only one joint, a person may have to change many daily activities to protect that joint from further damage and reduce pain. When arthritis affects the entire body, as it does in people with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, many daily activities have to be changed to deal with pain, fatigue, and other symptoms.
Changes in the home may help a person with chronic arthritis continue to live safely, productively, and with less pain. People with arthritis may become weak, lose their balance, or fall in the bathroom. Installing grab bars in the tub or shower and by the toilet, placing a secure seat in the tub, and raising the height of the toilet seat can help. Special kitchen utensils can accommodate arthritic hands to make meal preparation easier. An occupational therapist can help people who have rheumatic conditions identify and make adjustments in their homes to create a safer, less painful, and more efficient environment.
Friends and family can help a patient with a rheumatic condition by learning about that condition and understanding how it affects the patient’s life. Friends and family can provide emotional and physical assistance. Their support, as well as support from other people who have the same disease, can make it easier to cope. The Arthritis Foundation (see the list of resources at the end of this fact sheet) has a wealth of information to help people with arthritis.
What Is Some of the Current Research Being Done on Arthritis?
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), leads the Federal medical research effort in arthritis and rheumatic diseases. The NIAMS sponsors research and research training on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and at universities and medical centers throughout the United States.
The NIAMS supports three types of centers: Multipurpose Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases Centers (MAMDC’s), Specialized Centers of Research (SCOR’s), and Core Centers.
The MAMDC’s foster a multidisciplinary approach to the many problems of arthritis and musculoskeletal diseases and develop new capabilities for research into other diseases. Centers develop and carry out research in basic or laboratory and clinical science, professional and patient education, and epidemiology and health services.
Each SCOR focuses on a single disease: currently, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and scleroderma. By doing laboratory and clinical studies under one roof, these centers aim to speed up basic research on the causes of these diseases and to hasten transfer of advances from the laboratory to the bedside and improve patient care.
Core Centers promote interdisciplinary collaborative efforts among scientists engaged in high-quality research related to a common theme. By providing funding for facilities, pilot and feasibility studies, and program enrichment activities at the Core Center, the Institute reinforces and amplifies investigations already ongoing in NIAMS program areas. Core Centers are currently targeted for skin diseases (Skin Disease Research Core Centers) and for musculoskeletal disorders (Core Centers for Musculoskeletal Disorders).
Some current NIAMS research efforts in rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, lupus, and scleroderma are outlined below.
Researchers are trying to identify the causes of rheumatoid arthritis in the hope that understanding the cause will lead to new treatments. They are examining the role that the endocrine (hormonal), nervous, and immune systems play, and the ways in which these systems interact with environmental and genetic factors in the development of rheumatoid arthritis. Some scientists are trying to determine whether an infectious agent triggers rheumatoid arthritis. Others are studying the role of certain enzymes (specialized proteins in the body that carry out biochemical reactions) in breaking down cartilage. Researchers are also trying to identify the genetic factors that place some people at higher risk than others for developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Moreover, scientists are looking at new ways to treat rheumatoid arthritis. They are experimenting with new drugs and “biologic agents” that selectively block certain immune system activities associated with inflammation. Recent studies suggest that these represent promising approaches to treatment. Other investigators have shown that minocycline and doxycycline, two antibiotic medications in the tetracycline family, have a modest benefit for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Researchers are working to understand what role certain enzymes play in the breakdown of joint cartilage in osteoarthritis and are testing drugs that block the action of these enzymes. In addition, a gene that may be linked to an inherited form of osteoarthritis has recently been discovered.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
Researchers are looking at how genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors influence the development of systemic lupus erythematosus. They are trying to find out why lupus is more common in certain populations. There has been very promising progress in identifying the genes that may be responsible for lupus. Promising areas of treatment research include biologic agents; newer, more selective drugs that suppress the immune system; and efforts to correct immune abnormalities with bone marrow transplantation. Clinical studies are underway to determine the safety of estrogens for hormone replacement therapy and birth control in women with lupus. Contrary to the widely held belief that estrogens can make the disease worse, recent data suggest that these drugs may be safe for some women with lupus.
Current studies on scleroderma are focusing on three areas of the disease: overproduction of collagen, blood vessel injury, and abnormal immune system activity. Researchers hope to discover how these three elements interact with each other to cause and promote scleroderma. In one recent study, researchers found evidence of fetal cells within the blood and skin lesions of women who had been pregnant years before developing scleroderma. The study suggests that fetal cells may play a role in scleroderma by maturing immune cells that promote the overproduction of collagen. Scientists are continuing to study the implications of this finding.
Where Can People Find More Information About Arthritis?
This is the main voluntary organization devoted to arthritis. The foundation publishes free pamphlets on many types of arthritis and a monthly magazine for members that provides up-to-date information on arthritis. The foundation also can provide physician and clinic referrals.
This association provides referrals to rheumatologists and physical and occupational therapists who have experience working with people who have rheumatic diseases. The organization also provides educational materials and guidelines about many different rheumatic diseases.
This clearinghouse, a public service sponsored by the NIAMS, provides information about various forms of arthritis and rheumatic disease. The clearinghouse distributes patient and professional education materials and also refers people to other sources of information.
The NIAMS gratefully acknowledges the assistance of John H. Klippel, M.D., and Reva Lawrence of NIAMS; Barri Fessler, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation; and Eric Matteson, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic, in the review of this fact sheet.
Analgesic: A medication or treatment that relieves pain.
Ankylosing spondylitis: A rheumatic disease that causes arthritis of the spine and sacroiliac joints and, at times, inflammation of the eyes and heart valves.
Antibodies: Special proteins produced by the body’s immune system that help fight and destroy viruses, bacteria, and other foreign substances (antigens) that invade the body. Occasionally, abnormal antibodies develop that can attack a part of the body and cause autoimmune disease. These abnormal antibodies are called autoantibodies.
Antigen: A foreign substance that stimulates an immune response.
Arthrography: An x-ray procedure that provides a detailed image of the joint when air or a contrast substance is injected into the joint space.
Arthroscopy: A procedure performed with an arthroscope (a small, flexible tube that transmits the image of the inside of a joint to a video monitor). Arthroscopy is used for diagnosis as well as treatment of some types of joint injury. The arthroscope is inserted through a small incision in the skin near the affected joint.
Bursa (plural, bursae): A small sac of tissue located between bone and other moving structures such as muscles, skin, or tendons. The bursa contains a lubricating fluid that allows smooth gliding between these structures.
Bursitis: A condition involving inflammation of the bursae.
Cartilage: A resilient tissue that covers and cushions the ends of the bones and absorbs shock.
Collagen: The main structural protein of skin, bones, tendons, cartilage, and connective tissue.
Connective tissue: The supporting framework of the body and its internal organs.
Computed tomography (CT or CAT): A diagnostic technique that uses a computer and an x-ray machine to take a series of images that can be transformed into a clear and detailed image of a joint.
Corticosteroids: Potent anti-inflammatory hormones that are made naturally in the body or synthetically for use as drugs. The most commonly prescribed drug of this type is prednisone.
Fibromyalgia: A chronic disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and tenderness in localized areas of the neck, spine, shoulders, and hips called “tender points.”
Fibrous capsule: A tough wrapping of tendons and ligaments that surrounds the joint.
Gout: A type of arthritis resulting from deposits of needle-like crystals of uric acid in the connective tissue, joint spaces, or both.
Hydrotherapy: Therapy that takes place in water.
Infectious arthritis: Forms of arthritis caused by infectious agents, such as bacteria or viruses.
Inflammation: A typical reaction of tissue to injury or disease. It is marked by four signs: swelling, redness, heat, and pain.
Joint: The place where two or more bones are joined. Most joints are composed of cartilage, joint space, fibrous capsule, synovium, and ligaments.
Joint space: The area enclosed within the fibrous capsule and synovium.
Juvenile arthritis: A term used to refer to the types of arthritis that affect children. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type.
Ligaments: Stretchy bands of cordlike tissues that connect bone to bone.
Lupus: A type of immune disorder known as an autoimmune disease that can lead to inflammation of and damage to joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and brain.
Lyme disease: A disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi in which arthritis is often a prominent symptom. Rash, heart disease, and nervous system involvement may also occur.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A diagnostic technique that provides high-quality cross-sectional images of a structure of the body without X rays or other radiation.
Manipulation: A treatment by which health professionals use their hands to help restore normal movement to stiff joints.
Microwave therapy: A type of deep heat therapy in which electromagnetic waves pass between electrodes placed on the patient’s skin. This therapy creates heat that increases blood flow and relieves muscle and joint pain.
Mobilization therapies: A group of treatments that include traction, massage, and manipulation. When performed by a trained professional, these methods can help control a patient’s pain and increase joint and muscle motion.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s): A group of medications, including aspirin, ibuprofen, and related drugs, used to reduce inflammation that causes joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Osteoarthritis: A type of arthritis that causes the cartilage in the joints to fray and wear. In extreme cases, the cartilage may wear away completely.
Polymyalgia rheumatica: A rheumatic disease that involves tendons, muscles, ligaments, and tissues around the joints. Pain, aching, and morning stiffness in the neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips characterize the disease. It is sometimes the first sign of giant cell arteritis (a disease of the arteries characterized by inflammation, weakness, weight loss, and fever).
Polymyositis: A rheumatic disease that causes weakness and inflammation of muscles.
Psoriatic arthritis: Joint inflammation that occurs in about 5 to 10 percent of people with psoriasis (a common skin disorder).
Reactive arthritis: A form of arthritis that develops after an infection involving the lower urinary tract, bowel, or other organs.
Rheumatic: A term referring to a disorder or condition that causes pain or stiffness in the joints, muscles, or bone.
Rheumatoid arthritis: An inflammatory disease of the synovium, or lining of the joint, that results in pain, stiffness, swelling, deformity, and loss of function in the joints.
Rheumatologist: A doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders that affect the joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones.
Risk factor: Something that increases a person’s chance of developing a disease, such as age, gender, ethnicity, and genetics (family history).
Scleroderma: A disease of the connective tissues and blood vessels that leads to hardening of the skin. Scleroderma can also damage internal organs such as the kidneys, lungs, heart, or gastrointestinal tract.
Synovial fluid: Fluid released into movable joints by surrounding membranes. The fluid lubricates the joint and reduces friction.
Synovium: A thin membrane that lines a joint and releases a fluid that allows the joint to move easily.
Tendinitis (tendonitis): Inflammation of tendons caused by overuse, injury, or related rheumatic conditions.
Tendon: Tough, fibrous cords of tissue that connect muscle to bone.
Transcutaneous: Through the skin.
Ultrasound: A treatment that uses sound waves to provide deep heat and relieve pain.
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