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What is rheumatism? Is it different to arthritis?

23 Nov 2022 • 3 min read

People often say rheumatism when they’re talking about rheumatoid arthritis, or general aches and pains in their joints.

The term rheumatism is an old-fashioned word used to describe problems that affect the joints and connective tissues.

Whereas arthritis can refer to diseases that affect the joints - such as osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), gout, and ankylosing spondylitis.

In this article we’ll talk you through everything you need to know in order to discover the difference between rheumatism and arthritis once and for all.

What is rheumatism?

The word rheumatism derives from the late Latin word, rheumatismus which meant “to suffer from a flux”. Today rheumatism is more likely to explain aches and pains in the joints, or perhaps more accurately, rheumatoid arthritis.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

According to the NHS, rheumatoid arthritis is a condition that usually affects the hands, feet and wrists by causing pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints.1  

It’s thought that with this condition there will be periods where symptoms may become worse. These periods are known as flares or flare-ups.

Flares can be difficult to predict but are treatable and can minimise or prevent long-term injury to joints.2

What is arthritis?

The word “arthritis” means ‘inflammation in the joints”.

Inflammation may be a difficult thing to imagine or describe, but UK charity Arthritis Action say that inflammation is part of the body’s normal healing process, just like the healing of a cut or a bruise.3

A normal joint is the connection between 2 bones. The ends of the bones are covered by a layer of cartilage which acts as a shock absorber to protect the bones form damage, which is the area which would commonly be affected first.4

More than 10 million people in the UK have arthritis, or other, similar conditions that affect the joints. It can affect people of all ages, including children.

What causes arthritis?

There are more than 200 types of arthritis, but the two most common are OA and RA. OA usually develops over time and can affect several different joints. RA is an inflammatory auto-immune disease, mainly affecting joints and tendons.

Experts do not yet know exactly what causes arthritis, but some forms run in families. Your lifestyle can also affect your risk of developing the condition.

Overuse or injury of a particular joint means it’s at greater risk of future problems, so athletes or those who have jobs with repetitive actions, like cleaners, are more at risk.

Carrying extra weight adds additional pressure on weight-bearing joints in your back, hips, knees, ankles, and feet.


Osteoarthritis, or OA as previously mentioned is the most common type of arthritis, affecting nearly 9 million people in the UK.

It’s more common in people in their 40’s or older, and it's more common for women, particularly after the menopause and people with a family history of the condition.5

Initially, OA affects the flat cartilage lining of the joint. This will make movement more difficult than usual, which will then lead to pain and stiffness.

Once the cartilage lining begins to roughen and thin out, the tendons and ligaments have to work harder.

In more severe circumstances, a loss of cartilage can lead to bone rubbing on bone, altering the shape of the joint and forcing the bones out of their normal position.

The joints that are most commonly affected with the symptoms of rheumatism are:

  • Hands
  • Spine
  • Knees
  • Hips

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA affects more than 400,000 people in the UK, and women are three times more likely to be affected than men.

It most commonly targets people between 40 and 50 years old. It affects the body's immune system and targets affected joints, which will lead to pain and swelling. 

The outer covering of the joint known as the synovium is the first place affected. This can then spread across the joint, leading to further swelling and a change in the joint's shape. This may cause the bone and cartilage to break down.

People with rheumatoid arthritis can also develop problems with other tissues and organs in their body.

Common arthritis symptoms

In OA, cartilage protecting the end of bones is worn away, so the bare bones rub together, making joints stiff, painful, and creaky.

Any joint can be affected but the knees, hips, and hand joints are most affected because they do a lot of work.

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are slightly different. In RA, an inflamed joint looks swollen and red, and may feel warm and tender. RA usually starts in the wrists, hands or feet, but can spread to other joints in your body.

The best arthritis treatment

At the moment, there is no cure for arthritis, so treatment is all about managing your pain.

Physiotherapy, osteopathy, chiropractic, and massage all help keep the joints working. One of the most common drug treatments is NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) but talk to your GP about other medication available for your type of arthritis.

You can try taking a glucosamine supplement, as glucosamine is a major part of the protein that forms cartilage in joints.

Natural anti-inflammatory remedies include ginger, extract of green-lipped muscle, bromelain, curcumin, and Devil’s Claw. Garlic increases blood flow to affected joints, which helps calm down joint inflammation.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids, found in oily fish such as salmon or a supplement, have anti-inflammatory effects, and may also improve joint mobility.

Magnesium may be useful, as it helps the body absorb calcium which healthy bones depend upon. Green veggies, nuts and whole grains are all rich sources of magnesium, or try taking a magnesium supplement.

Being active is essential for both preventing and improving arthritis symptoms. Studies have found people who exercise regularly, even something as simple as going for a walk, report less joint pain than people who do no exercise.

Can rheumatoid arthritis be cured?

While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, treatments can help reduce the inflammation the joints, relieve pain and in some cases slow down or prevent the damage to joints. Which may help you be more active.6

Treatments will usually involve talking to your GP and in some cases, different arthritis specialists who can support you into finding suitable medicines, making lifestyle changes, supportive treatments and in some cases surgery.7

Can you have osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis at the same time?

It is possible to get two different types of arthritis. This is known as secondary arthritis, which means that arthritis may have occurred from an injury to the joint or a medical condition.

The medical condition can be RA because of the damage due to joint damage, however it is not always the case that somebody with OA will develop RA as a result.8

Also, it is worth keeping in mind that both of these conditions can be difficult to diagnose separately and as a result its more likely that any diagnosis would suggest one or the other rather than deal with them separately.

What are the 4 stages of rheumatoid arthritis?

While there may be no specific cure for RA, early treatment to prevent further problems can be key. You can begin to recognise these symptoms at the early stages by looking out for the following:9

  1. In the early stages of RA you may not have many symptoms except for stiffness in the early hours of the morning, usually in the hands and feet, or sometimes your knees.

You may find that the stiffness gets better with movement, which is a good way of differentiating it from osteoarthritis.

  1. In many RA cases, you will find that you move into the second stage without diagnosis. At this stage you will begin to notice swelling and inflammation. This is because your body creates antibodies that may cause your joints to swell up.

You may also notice that you develop lumps on the elbows known as rheumatoid nodules.

  1. In the third, more severe phase – at this point blood tests and x-rays get less relevant as the symptoms will become more visible.

Your fingers may become bent and in some cases fingers can become crooked. This means that your joints may press on nerves and begin to cause nerve damage as a result.

  1. In many rare cases, and without any treatment the joints will ware away and will eventually fuse. However, it’s very unlikely that it will get to this point.

What are usually the first signs of rheumatoid arthritis?

The NHS explains that the main symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are:10

  • Joint pain
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Inflammation in other parts of the body

These symptoms may develop gradually over a number of weeks, but in some instances they can progress quickly over a matter of days.

How serious is rheumatoid arthritis?

As you may have established by now, without treatment rheumatoid arthritis can get very serious quite quickly. Particularly if you ignore early symptoms.

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, each affecting joints in different ways and its not something you should ignore. These can differ in severity, but it's something you should be taking seriously if you notice any of the early signs described within this article.

While there may not be a cure for rheumatoid arthritis there are treatments that can help slow it down.

For Osteoarthritis treatments will include lifestyle changes, medicines and in more serious cases, surgery.

Rheumatoid arthritis treatment will aim to slow the progress of the condition and reduce any joint inflammation you might experience, which may help prevent joint damage.

Further information, help and support

UK arthritis charity, Versus Arthritis provides help and support for people in the UK with arthritis. They have a free helpline you can call for further information on 0800 5200 520, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm.

You may also wish to look up your local arthritis services for further assistance.





Author: Bhupesh PanchalSenior Regulatory Affairs Associate

Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019

Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry

Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.

After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.

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