There are over 100 known rheumatic diseases. A rheumatic disease is any painful condition affecting joints, bones, and surrounding musculature. Many times, rheumatic conditions are caused by a hyperstimulated autoimmune response in which the immune system attacks the lining of joints within the body of the individual and causes inflammation, pain, and destruction. Autoimmune rheumatic diseases often have systemic implications that must be treated as well. Other rheumatic diseases like osteoarthritis are caused by mechanical abnormalities resulting in degradation of joints and cartilage.
Rheumatoid arthritis, one example of an autoimmune rheumatic disease, affects around 1.3 million Americans and many more people around the world. Women are affected at three times the rate of men, and the disease usually presents in patients over 40 years of age. Synovium, a soft tissue that lines the joints, becomes painfully inflamed, and as the disease progresses, extensive permanent joint damage and deformities occur.
The exact etiology of the disease is unknown, but a positive blood test for rheumatoid factor (RF), although not always present in all cases of RA, is usually an indicator. The presence of fatigue, fever, stiffness, and other physical abnormalities like fluid-filled nodules are factors considered when diagnosing the disorder. An X-ray will usually show signs of degeneration around cartilaginous joints, and the disease can also present with systemic inflammation of the lungs and cavities surrounding the heart.
Another autoimmune disorder in the family of rheumatic diseases is rheumatic heart disease caused by rheumatic fever. Brought on by a cross-reactivity of antibodies produced by the bacteria that cause strep throat, the disease can cause permanent and sometimes fatal damage to the heart. The symptoms associated with rheumatic fever, which include a high fever, painful migrating joint pain, and chest pain, occur around three weeks after the infection with strep. The disease is relatively rare in the United States since the 1960s, but it is a major threat in developing countries that do not have widespread access to antibiotics to treat primary strep infection.
Other common rheumatic diseases include lupus, gout, and Sjogren's Syndrome. Ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, and polymyalgia rheumatica also make this list. The painful joint conditions that present with rheumatic diseases are often treated with anti-inflammatory pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen; moderate to severe pain may have to be treated with opiate analgesics. Diseases that are caused by a reaction to bacteria or other pathogens can be treated prophylactically with antibiotic medication. Immunosuppressive drugs and steroids are often used to treat autoimmune rheumatic disease because they can suppress a hypersensitive immune system and keep it from attacking healthy tissue.