Rheumatologists are medical doctors who specialise in diagnosing and treating disorders that affect the joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones.
Rheumatologists treat patients with rheumatic diseases which are often manifested, at least in part, by the symptoms of arthritis. However, there are many diseases where arthritis only forms part of the clinical picture, or which are not related to arthritis, that also require the care of a rheumatologist. Besides arthritis, rheumatologists treat certain auto-immune diseases, musculoskeletal pain disorders and osteoporosis. These diseases have over 100 variations, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout, lupus, back pain, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia and tendonitis. Some of these are very serious diseases that can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages.
To explain arthritis more clearly, it is important to look at its link to autoimmunity. Each of us has an immune system that functions to protect us from infection by bacteria, viruses, or other micro-organisms. In the case of a rheumatic disease, the immune system is overactive, having lost its regulatory control. So instead of simply attacking bacteria or other foreign organisms, the immune system turns on its own tissues and attacks them. In the case of arthritis, the immune system attacks the joints and the lining of the joints, resulting in inflammation in and around the joint. These diseases may be manifested in a host of other symptoms including hair loss, skin rashes, mouth ulcers, lymph node enlargement, chest or abdominal pain, dry eyes and mouth, genital ulcers, and involvement of internal organs such as lungs, kidneys, or other systems.
Osteoporosis is a rheumatic disease that causes the bones to weaken and degenerate. This condition is prevalent amongst women over 50 years old. Doctors recommend preventative methods such as good calcium intake and extra Vitamin D, which is helping to reduce the number of cases and resulting injuries.
Many young people, including children, can be afflicted by osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis. It is not only a disease of the elderly.
Many rheumatologists conduct research to determine the cause of and better treatments for these disabling and sometimes fatal diseases. They act as consultants to other physicians in the diagnosis and management of these diseases, and work with nurses, physical and occupational therapists, psychologists and social workers. They also provide accurate information to patients and their families.