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Rheumatology is specialty devoted to the cause, development, diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases which present as clinical problems involving joints, soft tissues, autoimmune diseases, vasculitis and inherited connective tissue disorders.
The term rheumatology comes from the Greek word 'rheuma', meaning 'that which flows as a river or stream', and the suffix '-logy', meaning 'the study of'.
Rheumatology looks at the immunology of these disorders described as autoimmune diseases. An autoimmune disorder occurs when your body’s normal defence system triggers an attack on the cells of your own tissues or the lining of your joints.
Examples of autoimmune disorders include:
Rheumatoid arthritis – a chronic, systemic inflammatory disorder that may affect many tissues and organs, but principally attacks flexible (synovial) joints. In severe cases, joints can become deformed. Women are affected 2–3 times more than men. Onset is usually between the ages of 40–50, but can affect any age. Inflammation of surrounding tissue often occurs. Sufferers feel fatigued which is partly due to the anaemia which often accompanies the disease. Modern treatments for rheumatoid arthritis reduce the incidence of severe disability. They can include drug therapy, physiotherapy and surgery.
Scleroderma – a rare, chronic, systemic autoimmune disease that creates, hard, thick areas of skin and problems with joints and major body organs. Scleroderma is most common in women between 40–60 years.
Lupus Erythematosus (LE) – a collection of autoimmune diseases. Symptoms of these diseases can affect many parts of your body including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart and lungs. There are four types of lupus: systemic, discoid, drug-induced and neonatal lupus erythematosus. Of these, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common and most serious form. Symptoms may include fatigue (feeling very tired), rashes (usually on your upper body and joint pain and swelling.
Polyarteritis nodosa – a thickening of medium and small-sized arteries that become swollen and damaged from attack by rogue immune cells. This disease damages the tissues supplied by the affected arteries as they do not receive enough oxygen and nourishment without a proper blood supply. The thickening may also form aneurysms Around 30% of patients diagnosed with polyarteritis nodosa have an active Hepatitis B infection. Men are also twice as likely to get the disease as women. The condition affects adults more frequently than children. Most cases occur between the ages of 30 and 49.
Dermatomyositis – a connective tissue disease that is characterised by inflammation of your muscles and skin. The cause of dermatomyositis is unknown, but it may result from either a viral infection or an autoimmune reaction classifying it as a systemic autoimmune disease. Many people diagnosed with dermatomyositis were previously diagnosed with infectious mononucleosis and Epstein-Barr virus. Two thirds of those affected are middle aged women. 50% make a full recovery over 2 years whilst in 30% the disease is persistent. In the remaining 20% it affects lungs (interstitial lung disease, ILD) and other organs and can be fatal.
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