Rheumatoid Arthritis vs Rheumatoid Disease
May is National Arthritis Awareness Month. Led by the Arthritis Foundation, it’s an effort to increase public awareness of all kinds of arthritis and the serious toll they take on American lives personally, socially, and economically. The point is also to raise awareness and funds for research, treatments, and cures.
I say “cures,” plural, because there are more than 100 types of arthritis. One single cure won’t do it. The types of arthritis include osteoarthritis, the most well-known and common; rheumatoid arthritis; gout; psoriatic arthritis; polyarthritis rheumatica; and many, many others. Injury or infection are behind some types of arthritis.
That’s the thing: each type has a different underlying cause, ranging from normal wear and tear with aging to high levels of uric acid in the blood. What they have in common is joint inflammation—arthritis—as a major symptom.
I have rheumatoid “arthritis.” I prefer to call it rheumatoid “disease.” Why? Because arthritis is just one of its symptoms, or manifestations. Instead of joint inflammation and pain caused by years of hard use, my body’s autoimmune system causes arthritis as a symptom when it attacks and destroys its own synovial tissues, mistaking them for foreign invaders like malicious bacteria or viruses.
The tough, fluid-filled capsule that surrounds, lubricates, and protects my joints is comprised of synovial tissue. The inflammation of rheumatoid disease causes stiffness, swelling, and pain in and around the joint. Eventually, it damages and even destroys the bone itself, causing permanent disability.
But rheumatoid disease doesn’t stop with the jaw, cervical spine (neck), the tiny joints in the ear and in the larynx. It also goes after the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, fingers, low spine, hips, knees, ankles, feet, and toes. And it inflames the surrounding muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage, as well.
RD affects soft tissue, too. There’s synovial tissue in the lining of the heart, the lungs, the vascular system, the kidneys, and the eyes. These organs may also fall under autoimmune attack and become inflamed, causing swelling, pain, destruction, and even death.
The inflammation rheumatoid disease causes other symptoms, as well, like fatigue that’s not relieved by rest, a frequent low-grade fever, and cognitive dysfunction, or “brain fog.”
When I refer to my rheumatoid disease as rheumatoid arthritis, most people think of osteoarthritis. I’m not surprised. Because it’s so common, and they can treat the minor pain it causes with over-the-counter analgesics, I can’t blame them if they think I’m being a bit dramatic about my “arthritis.” After all, their grandma has it. She takes Tylenol and voila, she feels better. Sure, it hurts now and then, but it’s no big deal. And if it does become a big deal, like knee or hip osteoarthritis often does, they can simply have the joint replaced.
But rheumatoid disease is a different animal. It’s not just “arthritis.”
Both rheumatoid disease and osteoarthritis are incurable. But osteoarthritis doesn’t affect the heart or the eyes. It generally affects one or two joints in the body, while RD can affect any or all of them randomly, flaring in one or more joints today and different ones tomorrow or next week.
Neither disease is exclusive. For instance, I’ve had RD for almost 30 years, but only got osteoarthritis about five years ago. It’s limited to my fingertips and only bothers me occasionally. It may get worse someday. It may show up in a hip or knee. But so far, it barely holds a candle to the trouble my RD causes on a near-daily basis. I hope it stays that way.
It’s smart to learn and be aware of the different types of arthritis. National Arthritis Awareness Month is a perfect opportunity to do so. Check out the Arthritis Foundation for more information. If you want to know more about rheumatoid disease, you’ve found a great place right here on RheumatoidArthritis.net.