By Dr. Paul Utrie, Rheumatologist

Over seven million Americans. That’s how many people are affected by rheumatic diseases in the United States. Over seven million, including nearly 300,000 children!* According to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), rheumatic diseases cause more disability than heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, but they don’t get the attention compared to more “high-profile” diseases.

Perhaps it’s because rheumatic diseases are misunderstood. Many myths and misconceptions exist about it:

Myth: Rheumatoid arthritis is an old person’s disease.
Fact: Arthritis can occur at any age and is often diagnosed in middle age or even in

Myth: Rheumatoid arthritis is induced by a cold, wet climate.
Fact: Climate is not the cause. It’s also not the cure.

Myth: Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by poor diet, being overweight, and/or stress.
Fact: Although eating right and exercising is a healthier choice all around and may
help manage rheumatoid arthritis, there is no evidence that diet, weight or stress causes it.

What Exactly is Rheumatic Disease?
There are over 100 rheumatic diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and gout are some of the most typical types. Inflammation is the aggressor with them all. It most commonly affects the joints, but may also affect tendons, ligaments, bones, muscles, and sometimes organs. Symptoms include:

  • Pain, swelling and tenderness around the affected joint
  • Stiffness, especially in the morning
  • Warmth and redness
  • Difficulty using the joint normally

Each person experiences symptoms differently. Some people may have long periods of time where the disease is docile, and they have no symptoms. Other people may experience flare ups, either regularly or randomly. Some people may have symptoms constantly or have slight symptoms with occasional flare ups. It all depends on the rheumatic disease and the stage of the disease.

What Causes a Rheumatic Disease?
We believe they are caused by a combination of things; genes, environmental factors, and lifestyle. Having a certain genetic makeup may predispose you to it, environmental factors may cause it to rise up, and lifestyle choices, such as smoking, may exasperate it.

What are the Risk Factors Associated with Rheumatic Disease?
As with other diseases, certain people are more susceptible than others:

  • Women are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and ten times more likely to develop lupus than men
  • Men are more apt to get gout and spondyloarthropathy (rheumatoid arthritis that affects the spine)
  • African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to get lupus
  • Obesity and smoking increases the risk for a number of rheumatic diseases

What is the Impact of Rheumatic Disease?
The impact of rheumatic diseases on patients can be drastic and can have a profound effect on their quality of life. Daily life can be affected to the point where even the simplest tasks become difficult and painful: getting in and out of bed, bathing, turning faucets on and off, tying shoe laces, brushing teeth or hair, or walking to name just a few. Coping with the disease may also cause stress and anxiety, which can also contribute to a diminished quality of life.

Because rheumatic disease can affect simple daily tasks and actions, it should come as no surprise that it also has a detrimental impact on a person’s ability to work. In fact, rheumatic diseases are the single biggest cause of sick leave, premature retirement, and physical disability.** Those coping with a rheumatoid disease must also face numerous costs for treatment and pain management. Medication, doctor’s visits, the inability to work, among other things can create financial stress.

How is Rheumatic Disease Treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for rheumatic diseases. The goal of treatment is to reduce pain, improve function and prevent further joint damage. It’s very important to see a doctor right away if you’re experiencing any symptom. If inflammation goes unchecked, it can damage cartilage. Over time, the joint spacing between bones can become smaller, causing joints to become loose, unstable, painful, and lose their mobility.

Please come see us as soon as you start experiencing any rheumatoid disease symptoms. The sooner we can diagnose the problem, the sooner we can start treating it and managing it. We’ll create and oversee a treatment plan that will get you back to the life you love.

Dr. Paul Utrie is a rheumatologist at OSMS and sees patients in Appleton and Green Bay.

*American College of Rheumatology