Rheumatism is a word used to describe a number of diseases, acute or chronic, which are accompanied by pain and stiffness of the muscles, the joints and other tissues involved in movement. Arthritis is the term used to describe inflammation of the joints only. So frequent are the conditions grouped under rheumatoid arthritis that cases exceed tuberculosis by ten times, cancer by seven times and diabetes by ten times. One expert says that 150,000 people are made invalids by these conditions every year; others estimate the total number of people in the United States with such conditions as anywhere between eight and ten million.
Joints have to bear weight and at the same time be able to move. So perfectly are they formed for their purpose that the great artist, engineer and anatomist, Leonardo da Vinci, spent much time drawing them and studying their methods of operation. The joint includes the ends of bones, cartilages between the ends, a capsule holding it all together, ligaments which attach the muscles to the bones, membranes and the joint fluid. Nerves accompany the blood vessels into the joints; while the bones and cartilage do not feel pain, inflammation and swelling with the pouring of extra fluid into the joint can produce exquisite pain.
People with arthritis can be quite eloquent about their joints. The pain may be described as excruciating, throbbing, burning, aching, squeezing, or just hurting. The patients also complain of crackling, stiffness, and loss of motion.
The American Rheumatism Association has classified arthritis into seven types: (1) due to infection; (2) due to rheumatic fever; (3) rheumatoid; (4) degenerative; (5) due to injuries; (6) due to gout; (7) arising from the nervous system.
Rheumatoid arthritis is not just a disease of the joints, but a general condition affecting the whole body. While the exact cause or causes may not be known, the discovery of the effects of ACTH and Cortisone have led to new concepts of the nature of the disease. Now rheumatoid arthritis along with a number of other conditions is called a “collagen” disease. In all of these the connective tissue of the body is chiefly concerned. The tendency is to consider rheumatoid arthritis a reaction of the body to sensitivity to certain substances, perhaps coming from bacteria, with the sensitivity affecting the connective tissue chiefly. The suggestion has also been made that rheumatism is not a specific reaction to some single substance but a general reaction of the body resulting from several different stimulations.
Women are affected by rheumatoid arthritis three times as often as men. Frequently several cases appear in one family, which does not mean that the condition is hereditary in the true sense but rather that the group may be exposed to similar detrimental environmental factors such as cold, damp, and infections of the respiratory passages. People in all conditions of life and society get rheumatoid arthritis. More people get it, however, in areas that are poor, overcrowded, and unhygienic. Doctors recognize also an emotional or psychological factor. Perhaps for that reason, arthritis is worse on cold, damp days when people are adversely affected emotionally by the weather. Sometimes arthritis accompanies states of emotional tension, frustrations and anxieties, and such patients do not seem to want to get well. The rheumatism is a crutch, or something on which to lean as an explanation for inadequacies.