Rheumatoid Arthritis Versus Rheumatoid Disease: What’s in a Name?

A few years ago, I was moving into a new house, and we were having it cleaned before we unpacked. The woman who was cleaning was a chatterbox, and I was feeling excited and happy so we started to chat. At one point in the conversation, she asked me about my limp. “What happened to you?” she said, pointing at my foot. I told her my usual line of, “No, I didn’t injure it, I’ve lived this way since I was two. I have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and I often limp as a result.” She lit up and exclaimed, “Me too!! I live with AWFUL pain every day. I’ve had arthritis in my hands and my right knee for years.” As she was saying this she was kneeling on the top of my refrigerator, busily scrubbing the cabinets above. I held my tongue, even after she jumped down and kept going. It was quite comical if I was in the mood for that, and I was, so I just grinned to myself and let her finish. I knew, just by looking at her, that RA wasn’t her problem. It was OA, osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, that made her hurt after a long day scrubbing and kneeling.

The confusion with osteoarthritis

This is a common story, and one that I’ve lived through countless times during the 47 years that I’ve lived with JRA. And I think this is why, lately, I’ve been seeing a new term for the disease I’ve lived with since I was a kid. Instead of saying they have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, some people I come into contact with, use the term juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and people with the adult form of rheumatoid arthritis are calling it rheumatoid disease. The thinking is that it will help clear up a common misconception people have about RA- that it is the same or similar to the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis. OA, which, although it can be inflammatory in nature and can become severe, doesn’t travel around the body like RA does; instead it sticks with the joints it first formed in, usually weight-bearing joints that get the most stress throughout a day, and a life.

I understand both the confusion, and the frustration. So, to better understand what term makes the most sense, I went back to basics. I looked up the meaning of the terms we are using.

Back to the basics

Rheumatoid: The Latin root for this word is rheumaticus, meaning, troubled with rheum. Rheum is a Greek word for flow. So, rheumatism is a problem that moves within a person’s body.1
 A problem with Flow in the body 

Disease: A word that comes from the 14thCentury, and stems from an old French word, Desaise.Des: without Aise: Ease2
Without Ease 

Arthritis:This word comes from the 1540’s and is a medical Latin term meaning inflammation of the joints. The base of the word, comes from the Greek word Arthron, meaning joint. Itisis a new Latin term that means inflammation.3
Inflammation of joints
So: A problem with flow in the body, without ease.

Or: A problem with flow in the body, creating inflammation of the joints.  

The first meaning seems too vague, and the second too specific. In the end will either term put to rest one of the most common and frustrating experiences someone with rheumatoid arthritis encounters, or will the new term add to the confusion?

I think the jury is still out on that one. I personally prefer to use the term rheumatoid arthritis, simply because this is the term I’ve used all my life. Rheumatoid disease is a term that will differentiate itself a bit more, like Lupus, or Ankylosing Spondylitis. Lupus, is an interesting one because it is a term that means wolf and chosen because the skin lesions on a person’s face resulting from lupus look wolf-like. If only the doctor who coined the term rheumatoid arthritis in the mid 1800’s, (Dr. Alfred Baring Garrod,) had more imagination, perhaps we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now!

The need for this discussion?

But we are, and we need to, because as we continue to learn about this complex, confusing, and quite harmful disease, we are understanding that it is more than any term we have come up with so far can describe. It is a distant relative of OA, Gout, and a number of other kinds of arthritis, and may actually be more than one disease. No matter the term you prefer to use, it is likely you will need to follow up with a descriptor in order to clarify what it means for you.

September is Rheumatic Diseases Awareness month. The focus for this month is to highlight the multitude of diseases that fall under the rheumatic disease category. Of the over 100 types of arthritis, there are about thirty that fall under this category, including lupus, infectious arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, Crohn’s disease, and juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Hopefully, as people learn more about the whole-body effects of diseases like RA, we can focus more on living a good life and less on describing our challenge.

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