Rheumatism and Arthritis – what’s the difference?

Arthritis and rheumatism are perhaps the two most common afflictions affecting the human race. In fact, if animals could talk many of them would probably describe similar symptoms.

What are we actually referring to when we say ‘I have arthritis’, or ‘I have rheumatism’?

Both are ‘catch-all’ terms referring to a varied group of conditions. Let’s have closer look at their real meaning.


Arthritis literally means joint inflammation (arthro = joint, itis = inflammation), but the term has been far more broadly used to describe many of the aches, pains and afflictions that most of us experience at some point in our lives.

More than 100 forms of arthritis have been described, but by far the most common is osteoarthritis (OA). OA is among the oldest afflictions known to man, with evidence of joint degeneration having been found in the mummies of ancient Egypt and in skeletons found in archaeological excavations of all the ancient civilisations.

OA will affect 100% of the population to some degree or another, if people live long enough! However, having some arthritic degeneration in certain joints does not imply that there will inevitably be pain or disability. As a chiropractor I am regularly surprised by some of the X-rays I see, where there is marked spinal arthritis but no pain in that particular area. Having arthritic degeneration will, however, make one more vulnerable to sprains and strains, and one will need to be more careful with certain activities – lifting heavy weights and doing repetitive activities, for example.

OA affects only the skeletal system, and certainly has a tendency to affect certain areas – specifically the spine, hips, knees and shoulders – over others. The joints of the human frame are the moving parts, and just as the moving parts of an engine or machine are prone to wear and tear, so too are our joints. The joints that are exposed to greater mechanical stresses are therefore more prone to the effects of wear and tear.

OA is unfortunately not a ‘curable’ condition, nor is it totally avoidable; there is no tablet that can be taken to prevent it, but it is certainly a manageable condition. There are many ‘management’ approaches, varying from using medications such as anti-inflammatories and pain killers, which suppress the symptoms (usually pain, muscular spasms and stiffness) but carry a risk of side-effects, to chiropractic, physiotherapy, exercise, stretching and lifestyle changes.

The other forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, juvenile arthritis and infective arthritis, are genetically driven and require medical management and often intensive disease-modifying medication.


Rheumatism has a far more general definition than arthritis, and the word is used to describe a range of conditions rather than a particular condition. The word rheumatism could describe symptoms that include pain, stiffness, pins and needles, tingling, numbness and inflammation in, or at, multiple sites in the body – for example, joints and other non-articular soft-tissue structures such as tendons, ligaments and other connective tissue structures, bursae, etc.


The symptoms related to both arthritis and rheumatism can develop acutely (i.e. come on quickly and sometimes for no apparent reason), or develop over time. The symptoms can be ‘self-limiting’, which means that they gradually improve on their own with some rest, or it may be necessary to intervene by seeing a chiropractor or physiotherapist.

If the symptoms do persist, it is never a good idea just to live with the problem. Very occasionally there can be a more sinister underlying cause that would require further investigation and possibly medical management.

The very nature of life these days, the pace at which we live, and the demands, both physical and emotional, that are thrust upon us or that we create for ourselves, result in the body putting itself into a state of defence physiology. This state precipitates the release of numerous ‘stress chemicals’ such as noradrenaline and cortisol, and the side-effects of over-production of these chemicals will be the symptoms that I have described and that would be attributed to arthritis or rheumatism.

Quite often the prevailing thought process is, ‘because I have been diagnosed with arthritis there’s nothing that can be done, so I might as well live with my problem’. In fact, your doctor may even tell you that this is the only course open to you. Nothing could in fact be further from the truth!

Very often, making some minor changes to your lifestyle will allow you to manage both arthritis and rheumatism very successfully, especially if the conditions are chronic. The ideal approach would be to consider a maintenance programme to prevent the symptoms from occurring. This may involve regular visits (say monthly) to a chiropractor, physiotherapist or massage therapist, regular exercise classes (Pilates, for example), paying special attention to your stress levels, and being careful with your posture.


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Rheumatism and Arthritis – what’s the difference?

Dr Kevin Lentin
About The Author
- B SOC SC, DC (USA), DIP CLIN NUTR (AUSTRALIA), ILS PARAMEDIC (SA). He has been practising as a chiropractor for the past 26 years. While chiropractic has been the cornerstone of his practice, his extensive knowledge in the fields of functional medicine and clinical nutrition, together with his interest in the role the mind plays in the maintenance of health and wellness, enables him to offer an integrative and individualised approach for individuals wanting to explore wellness and function at their optimal potential.