rheumatism & arthritis - what's the difference?...

Arthritis and rheumatism are perhaps the two most common afflictions affecting the human race. What are we actually referring to when we say ‘I have arthritis’, or ‘I have rheumatism’? Both are ‘catch-all’ terms referring to a varied group of conditions – but what are their real meaning?

Arthritis literally means joint inflammation, but the term has been far more broadly used to describe many of the aches, pains and afflictions that most of us experience at some point in our lives.

More than 100 forms of arthritis have been identified, but by far the most common is osteo-arthritis (OA). OA will affect 100% of the population to some degree or another, if people live long enough! However, having some arthritic degeneration in certain joints does not imply that there will inevitably be pain or disability. 

Having arthritic degeneration will, however, make one more vulnerable to sprains and strains, and one will need to be more careful with certain activities – lifting heavy weights and doing repetitive activities, for example. OA affects only the skeletal system, and certainly has a tendency to affect certain areas – specifically the spine, hips, knees and shoulders – over others.

OA is unfortunately not a ‘curable’ condition, nor is it totally avoidable; there is no tablet that can be taken to prevent it, but it is certainly a manageable condition. There are many ‘management’ approaches, varying from using medications such as anti-inflammatories and pain killers, which suppress the symptoms (usually pain, muscular spasms and stiffness) but carry a risk of side-effects, to chiropractic, physiotherapy, exercise, stretching and lifestyle changes.

The other forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, juvenile arthritis and infective arthritis, are genetically driven and require medical management and often intensive disease-modifying medication.

Rheumatism has a far more general definition than arthritis, and the word is used to describe a range of conditions rather than a particular condition. The word rheumatism could describe symptoms that include pain, stiffness, pins and needles, tingling, numbness and inflammation in, or at, multiple sites in the body – for example, joints and other non-articular soft-tissue structures such as tendons, ligaments and other connective tissue structures, bursae, etc.

You DON’T have to just live with the problem
The symptoms related to both arthritis and rheumatism can, come on quickly and sometimes for no apparent reason, or develop over time. The symptoms can be ‘self-limiting’, which means that they gradually improve on their own with some rest. If the symptoms do persist, it is never a good idea just to live with the problem. Very occasionally there can be a more sinister underlying cause that would require further investigation and possibly medical management.

The very nature of life these days, the pace at which we live, and the demands, both physical and emotional that are thrust upon us or that we create for ourselves, result in the body putting itself into a state of defence physiology. This state precipitates the release of numerous ‘stress chemicals’ such as noradrenaline and cortisol, and the side-effects of over-production of these chemicals are the symptoms described that are attributable to arthritis or rheumatism.

Very often, making some minor changes in your lifestyle will allow you to manage both arthritis and/or rheumatism very successfully, especially if the conditions are chronic. The ideal approach would be to consider a maintenance programme to prevent the symptoms from occurring. This may involve regular visits (say monthly) to a chiropractor, physio or massage therapist, regular exercise classes (e.g. Pilates), paying special attention to your stress levels, and being careful with your posture. As well the various types of maintenance programs above some supplements can also help alleviate either condition. These include Shark Cartilage, L-Phenylalanine, MSM, Glucosamine & Chondroitin as the most popular.

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