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Arthritis & Other Rheumatic Diseases

What is the difference between arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Arthritis is a group of more than 100 different diseases. It is also a type of rheumatic disease. Rheumatic diseases may cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints. They can also cause pain in other body structures such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. But rheumatic diseases can also affect other areas of the body such as internal organs. Some rheumatic diseases affect connective tissues (connective tissue diseases). Others may be caused by an autoimmune disorder. This means the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy cells and tissues.

Who treats arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Arthritis and other rheumatic diseases may be treated by your doctor or other healthcare providers. Several doctors from different medical specialties may work on treatment at the same time. This team approach is especially important to help manage the symptoms of a rheumatic disease. Many symptoms are long-term (chronic) and change in severity over time.

Some of the more common healthcare providers that help treat arthritis and other rheumatic diseases are listed below.

Primary care doctor
  • A primary care doctor is the healthcare provider you see for general health care. This doctor has special training in general internal medicine, family practice, or another first-level-of-care area. Primary care doctors offer:
  • Routine health care. This includes annual physical exams and vaccines.
  • Treatment for short-term (acute) health conditions
  • Care for conditions that may become more serious or chronic later

Your primary care doctor may diagnose or treat a disease. But he or she may also refer you to a specialist.


A rheumatologist is a doctor with special training to treat arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. Most rheumatologists have a background in internal medicine or pediatrics. Rheumatologists are trained to find many types of rheumatic diseases in their earliest stages. These include arthritis, many types of autoimmune diseases, musculoskeletal pain, disorders of the musculoskeletal system, and osteoporosis. A rheumatologist has finished 4 years of medical school and 3 years of training in internal medicine or pediatrics. He or she also has had 2 to 3 more years of special training in rheumatology. A rheumatologist may also be board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

Orthopedic surgeon

An orthopedic surgeon or orthopedist is a doctor with special training in orthopedic surgery. An orthopedist is trained to know how the musculoskeletal system works. This means he or she can diagnose a condition or disorder. The orthopedist can also find and treat an injury and give rehabilitation to an affected area. This provider can help you prevent further damage.

The orthopedist may have completed up to 14 years of training. The orthopedic surgeon may also become board certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery.

Many orthopedic surgeons practice general orthopedics. Others focus on certain areas of the body. This might be the foot, shoulder, or spine. And others focus on certain areas of care, such as sports medicine. Some orthopedists may focus on several areas. They may also work with other specialists, such as neurosurgeons, rheumatologists, or physiatrists.

Physical therapist

Physical therapy (PT) is a healthcare provider who focuses on body motion and function. They work on these systems: nervous system, muscles and bones, and heart and lungs.

PTs are important members of the healthcare team. They evaluate and give treatment for people with health problems caused by injury, disease, or overuse of muscles or tendons.

PTs have a degree in physical therapy. Many also have a master’s degree. All graduates must be licensed by their state by passing a national certification test.

PTs may practice in many places. These include:

  • Hospitals
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Home health agencies
  • Schools
  • Sports facilities
  • Community health centers
  • Private practice

PTs help you live with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. They:

  • Make it easier for you to move
  • Improve your balance and gait
  • Help you move muscles and other soft tissues
  • Teach you how to better use your body
  • Help you use casts or splints
  • Teach you how to use a wheelchair safely
  • Help you recover after a nerve injury
  • Help you set up an exercise program
  • Teach your family how to help you get better
  • Help you manage pain
  • Teach you how to walk safely
Occupational therapist

Occupational therapy is a healthcare provider who helps people go back to their daily tasks after a disease or injury.
An occupational therapist often does the following work to help you recover:

  • Helps plan treatment activities
  • Helps both children and adults grow mentally, socially, and physically
  • Helps children and adults learn how to do daily tasks
  • Leads group or individual treatment to help children and adults in a mental health center learn to cope with daily activities
  • Recommends changes in layout and design of the home or school to give children and adults with injuries or disabilities more access and mobility

Occupational therapists work many places. These include:

  • Hospitals
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Schools
  • Home care agencies
  • Private practice
  • Government agencies

A podiatrist is a doctor with special training to treat foot problems. He or she can prescribe medicine and do surgery. For example, people who have arthritis in the feet may see a podiatrist for special supportive shoes.


Nurses with special training in rheumatic diseases may help your doctor in giving care. These nurses also may help you learn about your treatment plan. They can answer many of your questions.

Who is affected by arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Arthritis and rheumatic diseases can affect anyone, at any age, or of any race. But certain diseases are more common in certain groups:

  • Osteoarthritis is more common in older adults.
  • Most people with rheumatoid arthritis are women.
  • Fibromyalgia affects 1 in 50 people in the U.S.
  • Gout is more common in men.
  • Scleroderma is more common in women.
  • Lupus affects women about 8 to 10 times more often than it affects men.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis is more common in men.
What causes arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Experts don’t know what causes most types of rheumatic disease. In many cases, the cause depends on the type of rheumatic disease. But researchers believe that some or all of the following may play a role:

  • Genes and family history
  • Lifestyle choices such as being overweight
  • Trauma
  • Infection
  • Nervous system problems
  • Metabolic problems
  • Too much wear and tear and stress on a joint or joints
  • Environmental triggers
  • Certain hormones
What are the symptoms of arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

The following are the most common symptoms of arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. But each person may have slightly different symptoms. Also different types of rheumatic disease have different symptoms.

  • Joint pain
  • Swelling in a joint or joints
  • Joint stiffness that lasts for at least 1 hour in the early morning
  • Chronic pain or tenderness in a joint or joints
  • Warmth and redness in the joint area
  • Limited movement in the affected joint or joints
  • Tiredness (fatigue)

The symptoms of arthritis and other rheumatic diseases may look like other health conditions. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Online Medical Reviewer: Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Horowitz, Diane, MD

Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2016
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