rheumatic disease frequently asked questions


Do you have questions about Rheumatic Disease?

If you or someone you know has a rheumatic disease, you probably have questions. See frequently asked questions about rheumatic disease.

Rheumatology is the study of rheumatism, arthritis, and other disorders of the joints, muscles, and ligaments.
Rheumatic diseases are autoimmune and inflammatory diseases that cause the immune system to attack a person’s joints, muscles, bones and organs.

Rheumatic diseases are often lumped under the term arthritis, which describes over 100 diseases. Under this umbrella there are more than 30 inflammatory rheumatic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, gout, scleroderma, juvenile arthritis and more.

With rheumatic diseases, patients develop deformities so severe that simple tasks, such as walking, brushing your hair or getting dressed in the morning become difficult and sometimes impossible.

While rheumatic disease affects each body in different ways, all can impact your health and sense of well-being.
Some common symptoms of rheumatic disease include:

  • Swelling in one or more joints. For instance, this might be your wrist, elbow, or knee, or one of the smaller joints in the hands or feet.
  • Stiffness around your joints that lasts for at least 1 hour, starting in the early morning.
  • Joint pain or tenderness. This pain may come and go, or hurt all the time.
  • Inflammation. Your joint can look red or feel warm to the touch.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, discuss them with your doctor and ask whether you should see a rheumatologist.

Rheumatologists are doctors specially trained to diagnose, manage and treat arthritis and rheumatic diseases.

Just as you would go to an oncologist to treat cancer, it is critical to go to a rheumatologist to receive the best total care for a rheumatic disease.

Rheumatologists have a deep understanding of the physical, mental, economic and societal impacts of rheumatic diseases and are skilled at recognizing and treating the wide array of rheumatic disease symptoms that can affect almost any organ in the body.

If you are experiencing symptoms of rheumatic disease, you should talk to your doctor about them immediately and ask whether you should see a rheumatologist.

The first weeks and months following the onset of rheumatic disease symptoms are known as the “window of opportunity,” and it’s crucial that patients get appropriate treatment in that time period to avoid long-term complications.

Treatment early in the disease — even within the first 12 weeks for some patients— can prevent damage to joints and other organs, improve long-term function, and increase the likelihood of achieving disease remission.

If left untreated, rheumatic diseases cause progressive damage to affected organs and joints. Substantial research demonstrates that early and aggressive treatment significantly improves patient outcomes.

A recent study shows that patients who receive treatment within 12 weeks of disease onset report nearly 30 percent less pain after 36 months than those patients who receive treatment after 12 weeks.

A common misconception about arthritis and rheumatic diseases is that they are just the “aches and pains” that accompany getting older. In fact, two-thirds of people living with rheumatic diseases are under the age of 65. These diseases often strike people in the prime of their lives and can be crippling, life-changing and life-threatening.

Rheumatic diseases also strike children and they carry the same destructive blow to a child’s health and well-being as they do to an adult’s. In fact, hundreds of thousands of American children live with rheumatic diseases. It is estimated that one child in every 1,000 will develop some form of rheumatic disease.

Another misconception about rheumatic diseases is that they solely impact women. While women and minorities are disproportionately affected, five percent of men in the U.S. will develop a rheumatic disease during their lifetime. Men are far more likely than women to receive the diagnosis of gout.

One of the treatment challenges facing arthritis patients today is the high out-of-pocket costs for specialty therapies. Many insurance companies have placed breakthrough arthritis treatments on so-called “specialty tiers,” which force patients to pay a percentage of the total drug cost, rather than a fixed copay amount. Because these drugs are so expensive, monthly copays for patients can easily reach into the thousands of dollars. This forces a lot of patients to choose between their health and financial debt. No patient should have to make that choice.

Arthritis care could also benefit from investment in medical research. More federal funding for the National Institutes of Health and specifically for arthritis research is needed to understand these diseases and fast track new treatments and therapies.

To learn more about current care challenges and ways to advocate, visit our Action Center.

Anyone interested in arthritis advocacy should visit our Action Center. You can also share your story and find more information about how to advocate for people living with arthritis and rheumatic diseases.
People can live productive, fulfilling, happy lives with rheumatic diseases. By working to ensure that all patients can access treatment during the window of opportunity, rheumatologists can help their patients live comfortably and do many of the things they did before their diagnosis.