Hundreds of Diseases, One Voice
Editor's note: This article was originally published in September 2018.
September is Rheumatic Diseases Awareness Month. Sponsored by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), the goal is to increase awareness of rheumatic diseases, how they can and do affect millions of Americans, and to give a generous nod to the dedicated physicians—rheumatologists—who treat these diseases and care for those who have them.
Rheumatic diseases in the United States
Rheumatic diseases are autoimmune and inflammatory diseases that cause the immune system to attack a person’s joints, muscles, bones, and organs.
According to the ACR, in America:
- rheumatic diseases are the leading cause of disability
- 54 million+ Americans live with some form of rheumatic disease
- 11 million Americans live with inflammatory rheumatic diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and lupus
- 300,000 children live with juvenile arthritis
- rheumatic disease can shorten a lifespan by up to 15 years
Raising awareness about rheumatic diseases
The ACR and its national public awareness campaign, Simple Tasks™ has adopted the slogan “Hundreds of Diseases, One Voice” to improve public understanding of rheumatic diseases and advance the health and well-being of millions of Americans living with rheumatic diseases.
This year’s RDAM spokesperson is sports commentator and former Pittsburg Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. As someone who lives with rheumatoid arthritis and who benefited from early intervention by a rheumatologist, Bradshaw is reminding everyone that “You don’t have to be an athlete to have sore joints!” Be sure to take the ACR’s Joint IQ quiz for a chance to win a #12 Pittsburgh Steelers jersey signed by Bradshaw.
What is rheumatic disease?
This is rheumatoidarthritis.net, and here we focus on rheumatoid arthritis. I prefer to call it rheumatoid disease because it’s systemic—meaning that it affects the entire body—and because “arthritis” is only one of its symptoms.
Like most other rheumatic diseases, RD is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body’s immune system, which protects us against infection by viruses, bacteria, and other foreign invaders, mistakes parts of the body itself as “foreign,” causing widespread inflammation and damage to the linings of the joints, heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, and even the veins.
Hundreds of diseases, one voice
But RD is just one of over 130 rheumatic diseases, including but not limited to the far more common osteoarthritis (affecting 54 million Americans), psoriatic arthritis, juvenile arthritis, lupus, gout, reactive arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis, ankylosing spondylitis, scleroderma, and fibromyalgia.
Symptoms of rheumatic diseases vary depending on the individual and the disease, but may include joint or muscle pain, inflammation, swelling, redness, or stiffness; eye irritation and inflammation; general fatigue, malaise, and fevers; hair loss; dry eyes or mouth; chest pain; and seizures or stroke.
Many Americans have more than one form of rheumatic disease. I’m one of them: in addition to RD, I have osteoarthritis, bursitis, tendinitis, and (my most recent diagnosis) fibromyalgia. I know several people who have these and others, all at the same time.
Why do I need a rheumatologist?
Do I need a rheumatologist? You betcha I do. These physicians specialize in the treatment of rheumatic diseases. I think they’re the real Sherlock Holmes’s of the medical profession since so many rheumatic diseases are extremely difficult to diagnose and to treat. Their symptoms often mimic those of other conditions and diseases, and they may present in different ways in different patients.
Seeking a diagnosis and treatment
Unfortunately, doctors sometimes mistake their symptoms for those of other diseases, or they may minimize them when they don’t respond to routine treatment or easy diagnosis.
In fact, many patients must live with the pain and illness of rheumatic diseases for years before receiving an accurate diagnosis and starting treatment, often after finally getting a referral to a rheumatologist. And this is a real tragedy, since many rheumatic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, respond much better when treated aggressively early on in the course of the disease.
The need for more rheumatologists
But what if there is no rheumatologist where you live? Or if the only rheumatologist in your area can’t take more patients? This is a real issue, as there is a shortage of rheumatologists today that only looks to get worse. According to the American College of Rheumatology’s 2015 workforce study:
- Demand for adult arthritis care will exceed supply by 138 percent in 2030.
- Demand for pediatric arthritis care will exceed supply by 61 percent in 2030.
- 3,845 adult rheumatologists will be needed in addition to the projected workforce to meet patient demand in the U.S. in 2025.
“Rheumatologists are providing health care solutions for the millions of Americans suffering from — as well as advancing research aimed at treating and curing, and alleviating the economic and societal burdens created by — these diseases,” states the ACR.
“Just as oncologists treat cancer and cardiologists care for the heart, rheumatologists are the specialists specifically trained to identify rheumatic diseases, facilitate appropriate treatment with the aim of achieving remission as early as possible, and consult with other physicians to help them determine which patients need the care of a rheumatologist — all with the goal of dramatically improving a patient’s prognosis and quality of life.”
On a scale of 1(low) to 5(high), how difficult is it for you to talk about having RA?