Definition and Overview

Rheumatology is a sub-branch of internal medicine that deals with health conditions affecting the joints, tendons, ligaments, soft tissues, and muscles. It is also a sub-specialty of pediatrics since many of these diseases can develop as early as infancy. Rheumatology comes from the word rheuma, which means relating to the joints. A specialist in this field is called a rheumatologist.

A rheumatologist works on more than 150 different types of rheumatic diseases, also referred to as musculoskeletal diseases because of their coverage. This also means that rheumatic disorders are some of the most prevalent health issues in the world, especially in Europe where at least one in every household is expected to be diagnosed or have any of these disorders.

These rheumatic diseases can be caused by trauma, genetic abnormality, heredity, autoimmune disease, or another underlying condition such as cancer. Some of the most common types of rheumatic disorders are:

  • Arthritis – This is one of the most common kinds of rheumatic disorders that involve the inflammation of the joint. Under it are psoriatic arthritis (which accompanies the skin condition called psoriasis), osteoarthritis (which is characterized by the destruction of the bones and cartilage), and juvenile idiopathic arthritis (which appears during childhood). Arthritis can also be caused by an infection, in which case it is called infectious arthritis.

  • Gout - Gout is often confused with arthritis because they both tend to share the same symptoms including swelling and redness. However, the main cause of gout is the build-up of crystal deposits made of uric acid in between the joints. This occurs when the body has a very high level of purine, which can be derived from protein-rich products such as beans and red meat.

  • Fibromyalgia –This health issue has a broad definition. It often refers to rheumatic disease accompanied by chronic fatigue and muscle stiffness, which makes it difficult for the patient to perform regular activities, including getting out of bed.

  • Lupus – There are two different kinds of lupus, the more severe of which is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). In lupus, the body's own immune system attacks the connective tissues, joints, and tendons. At least 100,000 people are diagnosed with this condition.

When should you see a Rheumatologist

Because of the complexity of rheumatic diseases, a person who is believed to have any of them should seriously consider seeing a specialist. A rheumatologist has formal training, years of experience, and expertise to diagnose, treat, and manage the signs and symptoms that are associated with rheumatic diseases.

A rheumatologist spends at least four years in general medicine training, after which he or she proceeds to specialty training in a healthcare facility such as a hospital for the next 2 to 3 years. A rheumatologist should also be fully certified and licensed under the Medical Licensure Board and American Board of Internal Medicine. He or she also needs to be certified by another board if he or she plans to work in pediatrics.

More often than not, since symptoms can mimic those of other conditions, a patient may first go to the general doctor before he or she is referred to a rheumatologist. Nevertheless, the services of a rheumatologist must be sought if:

  • The patient is showing classic signs and symptoms of rheumatic disease – These include redness and swelling in the affected joint, tenderness in the affected area, pain that can be acute or chronic, and difficulty in movement. Sometimes, the patient may also experience fatigue, lack of appetite, and fever.

  • The pain is already debilitating – Pain can occur in varying degrees. While some can be mild, others can be so painful they can prevent someone from pursuing regular activities. This type of pain is said to compromise or significantly reduce the patient's quality of life.

  • The disease is limiting the motion – Joints, tendons, muscles, tissues, and cartilages, to name a few, are all important to movement. A person with rheumatic disease, therefore, will find it difficult to walk, climb the stairs, bend, or event sit and stand. Some will experience stiffness for some time.

  • Someone in the family has been diagnosed with arthritis – Many of the rheumatic diseases such as arthritis and lupus have genetic components.

  • The disease should be managed – More experts are treating rheumatic disease as an autoimmune disease, which means it may not be completely cured, but it can be managed and controlled. A patient with this disease should see a rheumatologist to monitor the progress of the disease, prevent flare-ups, control symptoms, and determine whether the current treatment plan is still working.


  • American College of Rheumatology

  • Rheumatology Research Foundation
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