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If you think rheumatic diseases are just simple aches and pains, think again. Chronic joint pain is often associated with rheumatic diseases, but rheumatic diseases can also cause damage to vital organs including the heart.

“The chronic inflammation associated with many rheumatic diseases can also lead to an increased risk in heart complications,” says Eric Ruderman, MD; rheumatologist and professor of medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Ill. “A common misconception is that these diseases only cause joint pain and stiffness. In reality, rheumatic diseases can attack the whole body causing co-existing diseases that can lead to disability and even death.”

Just how do rheumatic diseases affect the heart? Below are several rheumatic diseases and their impact on the heart.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic disease that causes pain, stiffness, swelling and limited motion and function of many joints. While RA can affect any joint, the small joints in the hands and feet tend to be involved most often.

RA and the heart: People with RA are twice as likely to develop heart disease and other vascular complications, including heart attacks, angina, and strokes, than the average person.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (commonly called Lupus)

Lupus is a chronic (long-term) disease that causes inflammation pain and swelling. It can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, nervous system and other organs of the body.

Lupus and the heart: Having lupus greatly increases a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease and suffering from heart attacks. Nearly 40 percent of people with lupus develop prematurely hardened arteries, compared with 15 percent of their peers who do not have the disease.

Antiphospholipid Syndrome (commonly called antiphospholipid syndrome or APS)

Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome is a recently identified autoimmune disease present mostly in young women. APS may occur in conjunction with lupus, or it may develop as an independent condition. Those with APS make abnormal proteins called antiphospholipid autoantibodies in the blood.

APS and the heart: APS can cause blood to flow improperly and can lead to dangerous clotting. For instance, repeated small clots in the heart can cause heart valve thickening or damage, with the risk of releasing clots into blood. The disease is also associated with heart attacks in young people without any known cardiac risk factors. Blood clots in the arteries in the heart can lead to heart attacks, while blood clots in the arteries in the brain can result in strokes.


Scleroderma, or systemic sclerosis, is a disease affecting the skin and other organs. The primary physical finding in scleroderma is thickening and tightening of the skin.

Scleroderma and the heart: Scleroderma can cause scarring of the tissues around the heart, which can lead to abnormal heartbeats and congestive heart failure.

“It’s important for people to understand that these diseases aren’t just aches and pains. They are complicated diseases that can greatly affect the vital organs in a person’s body,” explains Dr. Ruderman. “In addition to discussing concerns with a rheumatologist, people with rheumatic diseases are encouraged to take a proactive role in managing health risks by controlling stress, participating in physical activities (approved by your rheumatologist) and maintaining a healthy weight.”

Here’s Your Window of Opportunity to Get Heart Smart About Rheumatic Diseases

Encourage patients with rheumatic diseases to visit a rheumatologist. Early recognition and care by a rheumatologist is important to lower heart, and other, risks associated with these diseases.