Read about rheumatism, what the term means and what rheumatic conditions can be encountered
What is rheumatism?
Rheumatism is a general term used to describe pain and inflammation in joints, muscles and surrounding soft tissue (known as connective tissue). The word is no longer used by doctors but may be heard in conversation by the older generation – e.g. ‘I’ve got a touch of rheumatism’.
The word rheumatism can be traced back to the late 14th Century with the use of reumatik in middle England, said to orginate from rheuma (Latin) or rheŭma (Greek) meaning “to flow like a stream or river”. This is said to refer to the symptom of ‘intense flowing pain’ affecting the joints, tendons, muscles and ligaments of the body.
At that time, physicians had a limited understanding of inflammation and bundled all painful disorders of muscles, bones, joints and soft tissues into one big box and labelled it rheumatism.
With the advancement of medical knowledge over the past 50 years, we now know that ‘rheumatism’ covers a wide range of health conditions – from local inflammation of one specific joint or area of the body (such as a frozen shoulder) to more generalised conditions of joints and muscles such as rheumatoid arthritis as well as other conditions termed arthritis.
These have been termed rheumatic diseases and today, doctors specialising in these conditions are known as rheumatologists. So, although the word rheumatism no longer has a specific medical meaning, its use will live on in hospital rheumatology departments all over the world.
The rest of this page gives a brief description of rheumatic symptoms and rheumatic conditions.
If you suffer from rheumatism symptoms, you may find our pages on Diet and lifestyle tips for rheumatism helpful.
What are the symptoms of rheumatism?
Most people with rheumatism will not describe their symptoms as ‘flowing like a stream’ as they did in the 14th Century. However, people with severe rheumatism symptoms can relate to the description of ‘intense flowing pain’.
Pain is caused by inflammation and is experienced to varying degrees. It may be accompanied by stiffness of a joint or limitation of movement of the painful body part. Joints affected can range from the smallest in the foot to the larger joints in the hip and shoulders.
Which disorders give rise to rheumatism symptoms?
Over 100 conditions are now known to give rise to rheumatism symptoms and no doubt, others will follow as we learn more about inflammation in the body.
In general, any condition giving rise to pain and inflammation, limiting movement of a joint, muscle or tendon will fall under the umbrella term ‘rheumatic condition’ giving rheumatism symptoms.
These conditions may affect just one joint or area, or be more generalised, affecting many parts of the body.
Rheumatism affecting one joint or area of the body
The common rheumatism conditions affecting one joint or area of the body are:
- Tendinitis – this is when a tendon is inflamed
- Bursitis – when a soft tissue structure known as a bursa around a joint becomes inflamed
- Repetitive Strain injury – commonly affects the hands and wrists of office workers, but can be seen in other small joints of the body
- Frozen shoulder – this causes difficulty in raising the arm. Sometimes, it is related to tissue injury such as a muscle strain (or pulled muscle) and yet at other times, no obvious cause can be identified
- Carpal Tunnel syndrome – arises because of pressure of a nerve in the wrist, giving rise to tingling in the hands
- Neck pain – may also be described as shoulder pain making it difficult to turn the head
- Gout – inflammation of joints as a result of the deposition of uric acid crystals in joint tissue
- Osteoarthritis – this is ‘wear and tear’ of a joint and not strictly speaking a rheumatic condition. However similar symptoms of pain and limitation of movement are experienced
- Back pain – there are many causes of back pain. Some, such as a slipped disc, are conditions treated by osteopaths, chiropractors or orthopaedic specialists.
Generalised rheumatism symptoms
Rheumatic symptoms or pain can affect many parts of the body. These are usually what doctors call autoimmune diseases – when the immune system starts to attack our body cells rather than invading infective organisms such as bacteria or viruses.
Common rheumatic conditions affecting more than one area or part of the body include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis – appears in a number of variants held together by the common feature of the immune system acting against the tissue in and around joints
- Fibromyalgia – characterised by inflammation of the muscles and connective tissue in the body with a variety of causes
- Polymyalgia rheumatica – affects muscles of the shoulders and thighs
- Lupus, scleroderma, polymyositis, dermatomyositis – all autoimmune illnesses affecting muscles and connective tissue