These terms do get confusing. Rheumatism stems from the Greek rheumatismos. Rheuma actually means ‘stream’ - the disease was originally supposed to be caused by the internal flow of ‘watery’ humours. Arthritis comes from the Greek arthron ‘joint’.
What is rheumatism?
The terms, rheumatism, and arthritis, have been used to describe a variety of symptoms including joint pain and inflammation. However, today, the word ‘rheumatism’ is pretty obsolete. It is used by and large to mean joint pain, rather than indicating any particular condition.
What is arthritis?
In medical terms, arthritis is inflammation in a joint. It’s important to appreciate that arthritis is not a single condition.
Osteoarthritis is a broad term for the largely age-related wear and tear of the joints. It’s clearly not just a matter of age – there are other factors involved too.
Furthermore, arthritis means that there’s some inflammation or damage in the joint, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s painful.
Certainly, not everyone with arthritis suffers from it. It’s interesting, for example, that by the time we’re 70 around 70% of has have arthritis in the hands, but it doesn’t bother most people - about 13% of men and 26% of women over 70 describe feeling symptoms from it.
In the knee the story is similar. In the famous Framingham Study, knee arthritis affected 20% of those over 45 and 44% of those over 80. But only about 15% of 60-year-olds describe feeling symptoms from their knees.
So what’s the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?
Osteoarthritis occurs due to the wear and tear of the joint tissues. The symptoms tend to develop gradually.
The common symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
● Stiffness of the joints;
● Joint stiffness that worsens after resting and improves with movements;
● Joint pain becomes worse toward the end of the day.
The ends of the bones are protected by cartilage, which provides a cushioning effect on the joints during movements. It helps to prevent the bones from rubbing against each other thus reducing friction.
Osteoarthritis occurs when this cartilage is damaged or lost causing wear and tear of the bone tissues.
The factors responsible for increasing the risk of osteoarthritis include:
● Advancing age
● Overuse of particular joints
Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease, which occurs when the immune system fails to recognize the body’s bone and joint tissues as its own and attacks them.
Here are a few typical distinguishing features:
● Rheumatoid arthritis usually affects the smaller joints of the body such as the wrist and the first two rows of knuckles. Osteoarthritis, on the other hand, usually affects the joints at the ends of the fingers and the base of the thumb.
● Rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect the joints symmetrically, which means it affects the same joints on both sides of the body. Osteoarthritis does not necessarily exhibit symmetrical involvement of the joints.
● Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis cause stiffness of the joints with an increase in pain in the morning. In osteoarthritis, these symptoms last around 20 minutes and in rheumatoid arthritis, they may last for longer than 45 minutes.
What can I do to avoid arthritis?
● The risk of osteoarthritis can be reduced significantly by maintaining a healthy weight. Obesity is the most important factor in osteoarthritis of the knees.
● A healthy lifestyle such as avoiding sedentary habits and being physically active can reduce the risk of these joint disorders.
● Some sports increase the risk of a knee injury, especially those that involve repetitive, high intensity, high impact forces, particularly where there is a high associated risk of injury. This can include running, dance exercise, tennis, racquetball, and squash.
● Low‐ to moderate‐impact exercises would include walking, swimming, stair climbing, rowing, and cross‐country skiing, and these are healthier for the knees.
● Osteoarthritis is more common in those who perform heavy physical work and particularly in those whose jobs involve knee‐bending, kneeling or squatting.
● The risk of rheumatoid arthritis is higher in patients who smoke. Hence, it is advisable to quit smoking to inhibit the development and worsening of this condition.