“Rheumatism” is not a medical term, but many people use it informally to describe symptoms similar to those of arthritis. Symptoms include joint and muscle pain.

People often use the terms rheumatism and arthritis to describe a variety of symptoms, such as joint pain and inflammation.

Here, we clarify what people mean by “rheumatism” and explore two conditions that can cause joint pain: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

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Rheumatism is not a medical condition, although some people use the term to describe general and persistent aches and pains.

Arthritis” is an umbrella term for more than 100 health conditions that cause joint pain or damage. Osteoarthritis is the most common type — more than 32.5 million people in the United States have it. Rheumatoid arthritis affects more than 1.3 million people in the country.

Rheumatism is a term that people often used in the past when describing pain and other symptoms affecting the muscles and joints.

Healthcare professionals do not use this term, but they use similar ones, such as “rheumatoid” and “rheumatology.” Rheumatologists are doctors who specialize in dealing with diseases of the joints and connective tissues. Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory autoimmune condition that leads to swelling in the joints. It may also cause a fever and other symptoms.

When people use the word “rheumatism,” they often mean rheumatoid arthritis. When people use the word “arthritis,” they are sometimes referring to osteoarthritis.

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Arthritis literally means “joint inflammation.” It is also a collective term for a complex family of musculoskeletal disorders that includes more than 100 diseases and other health conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than 54 million adults in the U.S. have arthritis. This is 23% of the adult population.

Arthritis often affects older people, but it can develop at any age. In fact, 60% of arthritis cases affect people aged 18–64 years, the CDC estimate. Juvenile arthritis (JA), also known as pediatric rheumatic disease, affects around 300,000 children in the country. JA is not a well-defined condition, but it usually involves inflammation and autoimmune factors.

The two most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

What is osteoarthritis?

This stems from wear and tear of the joints. The symptoms usually develop gradually and include:

  • pain
  • stiffness
  • aching
  • swelling
  • reduced mobility

Cartilage protects and cushions the joints, stopping the bones from rubbing against one another. Osteoarthritis leads to damage and the loss of cartilage, which leads to painful friction. Growths called bone spurs can also develop, increasing discomfort.

Osteoarthritis can result from the overuse of a joint, due to work or a sports activity, for example. Women are more likely than men to develop this condition, especially after they turn 50.

Other factors that increase the risk of osteoarthritis include:

  • the overuse of a joint, due to repetitive motions
  • older age
  • obesity, which puts stress on the joints
  • genetic factors, which may include having a family member with osteoarthritis

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease. An autoimmune disease causes the body to attack its own tissues. Rheumatoid arthritis causes the immune system to attack joints and other parts of the body.

This produces symptoms such as:

  • pain, tenderness, or swelling in one or more joints
  • fatigue
  • warm, swollen, inflamed-looking joints
  • a fever
  • weight loss
  • weakness

The symptoms tend to affect both sides of the body, for example, both knees.

Osteoarthritis results from wear and tear, while rheumatoid arthritis stems from an immune response. The two conditions also cause different symptoms.

Here are a few ways in which rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are different:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is more likely to affect the middle and lowest joints of the fingers.
  • Osteoarthritis is more likely to affect the joint at the base of the thumb and those at the tips of the fingers.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect both sides of the body, while osteoarthritis often affects just one side.
  • After a person gets up from resting, pain from rheumatoid arthritis can take at least 1 hour to start easing, while pain and stiffness from osteoarthritis often improve after activity.
  • The main symptoms of osteoarthritis affect the joints, but rheumatoid arthritis can cause flu-like symptoms, which may appear before the joint pain.

People may use the term “rheumatism” when they describe aches and pains similar to those caused by arthritis. Rheumatism is not a medical condition, and a person may instead be referring to rheumatoid arthritis. When people use the word “arthritis,” they are sometimes referring to osteoarthritis, the most common type.

Anyone with persistent joint pain or any joint pain and flu-like symptoms should receive medical attention. Various treatments can ease the symptoms of arthritis and slow its progression.