What are rheumatic conditions?

Rheumatic conditions are autoimmune and inflammatory diseases that cause the immune system to attack a person’s joints, muscles, bones, and organs.


Autoimmune conditions act against a person’s own internal defence system, triggering the body to produce antibodies that actually attack healthy cells and tissues. In the case of rheumatic conditions, the immune system attacks the patient’s joints, muscles, bones and organs causing pain, inflammation, life-altering disability and, in severe cases, can contribute to death.

Specific organs can be affected by rheumatic conditions. Some examples include:


Heart


The chronic inflammation associated with many rheumatic conditions can lead to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are twice as likely to develop heart disease as the average person. Additionally, having lupus greatly increases a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease and suffering from heart attacks. Nearly 40% of people with lupus develop prematurely hardened arteries, compared with 15% of their peers who do not have lupus. Other cardiac effects of rheumatic conditions include inflammation of the lining around the heart, causing a build up of fluid which can lead to heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms.


Eyes


Sjögren’s syndrome makes the eyes dry, irritated and inflamed. More severe eye complications can be found in juvenile idiopathic arthritis and giant cell arteritis – both of which can lead to decreased or complete loss of vision.


Lungs


One in 10 people with RA will develop serious lung complications due to damage to the lung tissue. People with scleroderma have an even higher risk of lung disease and can develop pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lungs, which can lead to life-threatening breathing complications.


Nervous system


The deformity and damage to joints in RA can lead to nerve compression, which may lead to serious consequences. In fact, many rheumatic conditions can also cause other forms of neuropathy or damage to nerve fibres in a variety of ways. Strokes are also more frequent in patients suffering from several of the rheumatic conditions including lupus, RA and giant cell arteritis.


Blood


Anaemia is a common symptom of most rheumatic conditions including lupus, RA and vasculitis.


Vascular system


Giant cell arteritis increases the risk of aneurysms, which are enlarged blood vessels that may burst, causing life-threatening internal bleeding. Other forms of vasculitis, as well as scleroderma, RA and lupus, can cause Raynaud’s syndrome – a cold-induced spasm of the blood vessels in the fingers and toes that may lead to painful ulcerations and even gangrene.


Skin


Psoriatic arthritis is a particular type of rheumatic condition that occurs in some patients who have psoriasis, which is a chronic skin condition. Many other rheumatic conditions cause serious damage to the skin, including skin hardening suffered by patients with scleroderma.



Additionally, rheumatic conditions can contribute to other serious co-existing diseases and infections, especially if not treated properly. Some examples include:

  • Serious infections, such as pneumonia, account for one-third of lupus-related deaths.
  • Just a year after a patient has been diagnosed with RA, the risk of heart attack is 60% higher than someone without RA.
  • Patients with psoriatic arthritis are 50% more likely than the general public to develop diabetes.
  • Scleroderma can cause scarring of the tissues around the heart, which can lead to abnormal heartbeats and congestive heart failure.
  • Scleroderma can affect a person’s kidney function and lead to kidney failure.
  • Osteoporosis is a major health problem in patients with rheumatic conditions, due both to the effects of the conditions, and their treatments.
  • Many forms of rheumatic conditions, as well as their treatments, are associated with an increased risk of cancer, especially lymphoma.

People with rheumatic conditions have to face both the frightening idea of being diagnosed with a potentially crippling condition, and the reality that they might die 10 to 15 years earlier than those without these conditions.