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  • Writer's pictureJane Swain

Rheumatic Diseases: You Need to Calm Down

Written by Jane Swain RNBN BA


Does your body remind you of a Taylor Swift song? Like the hit tune suggests, if your body is taking ‘shots’ at you at 7:00am, you likely a chronic illness and it can potentially be a rheumatic disease. You may be thinking “I wish my body would calm down, like can you just not”. 


If you’re new to the world of rheumatic disease, this post is for you. This is an overview about rheumatic disease, what’s going on inside your body and the basics when it comes to diagnosing and treating rheumatic disease. Arm yourself with knowledge against the internal war your body is raging and before you know it, you’ll be a pro on rheumatic disease. You should feel like you can take control of your illness, instead of it controlling you.


What is Rheumatic Disease?

Rheumatic disease is a generalized term for diseases that cause inflammation and swelling in the body. This inflammation and swelling largely affects connective tissues, joints and muscles and results in heat, pain, redness and swelling in these areas. The most common form of rheumatic disease is arthritis (most commonly osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis). Other common examples of rheumatic disease are:  

  • Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis

  • Psoriatic Arthritis

  • Lupus

  • Scleroderma

  • Sjögren's Disease

  • Vasculitis

Rheumatic diseases are autoimmune diseases that can range in severity from mild to disabling, depending on how severe the immune response is within the body and to which system is most effected. 


Immune System 101

Our bodies have systems in place to protect us from getting sick and to fight off sickness when our body is under attack. One such system that does this is the immune system. The immune system is comprised of different types of cells and organs that identify harmful invaders that make us sick, like bacteria and viruses. Each of these cells and organs play an important role in identifying and eliminating cells and tissues that are flagged as “harmful” to our bodies. However even our own immune system can make mistakes resulting in the targeting of healthy tissue, like in rheumatic disease.


While the immune system is a complex network that works together using cells, chemicals, organs and other entities, the cells of interest to rheumatic disease here are white blood cells (WBC). The main role of WBC is to identify foreign cells, label them as a threat, and destroy them. Mainly, T-cells and B-cells execute this role for the body.

  • T-cells - play a vital role in identifying foreign cells/tissue like bacteria and viruses, marking them for termination. Normally, T-cells that would mistakenly target our own tissues are destroyed by the body. Some of these rogue T-cells however, sneak through and continue to raise red flags on our own healthy cells. Once T-cells have flagged our own healthy cell as a threat, it triggers B-cells to make antibody proteins to destroy these wrongly flagged cells.

  • B-cells - produce antibodies that are specific to that type of cell or tissue. They are responsible for the destruction of our healthy cells and tissues.


Diagnosis and Treatment

If you choose to see a doctor to seek a diagnosis for your presenting symptoms, your doctor may combine imaging, physical exam, and samples (blood and urine) to confirm a rheumatic disease diagnosis. 


Seeking treatment can be multi-focused. Treatment of rheumatic disease aims to: 

  • Replenish the body’s deficiencies caused by the disease

  • Suppress your body’s immune response with medication (immunosuppressants)

  • Symptom management: 

  1. Medication (pain relievers, etc.)

  2. Physical therapy (massage and targeted exercises for affected muscles/joints can provide pain relief)


Whatever treatment you choose, your healthcare team is always there for you to make sure you feel supported and empowered to make decisions about your care plan. While these diseases do not yet have a cure, the symptoms can at times be well-managed with a good care plan between you and your healthcare team.

 

Conclusion

Rheumatic disease can take control of your life, but it doesn’t have to. Finding a diagnosis isn’t always easy, but arm yourself with this knowledge, and you’ll be in a much better place to handle anything that comes your way. When in doubt, tell those aches and pains “You need to calm down”.


Sources: Better Health Channel, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MedlinePlus, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.


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