About Arthritis and Other Rheumatic Diseases

What is the difference between arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Arthritis is a group of more than 100 different diseases. It is also a type of rheumatic disease. Rheumatic diseases may cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints. They can also cause pain in other body structures. These include muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Rheumatic diseases can also affect other areas of the body, such as internal organs. Some rheumatic diseases affect connective tissues. Others may be caused by an autoimmune disorder. This means the body's immune system attacks its own healthy cells and tissues.

Who treats arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Healthcare provider examining woman's foot.

Your doctor or other healthcare providers may treat arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. Several doctors from different medical specialties may work together on your treatment. This team approach is especially important to help manage the symptoms of a rheumatic disease. Many symptoms are long-term (chronic) and change in severity over time.

Some of the more common healthcare providers that help treat arthritis and other rheumatic diseases are listed below.

Primary care doctor

A primary care doctor is the healthcare provider you see for general healthcare. This doctor has special training in general internal medicine, family practice, or another first-level-of-care area. Primary care doctors offer:

  • Routine healthcare, including annual physical exams and vaccines

  • Treatment for short-term (acute) health conditions

  • Care for conditions that may become more serious or chronic later

Your primary care doctor may diagnose or treat a disease. Or they'll refer you to a specialist if needed.


A rheumatologist is a doctor with special training to treat arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. Most rheumatologists have a background in internal medicine or pediatrics. They are trained to find many types of rheumatic diseases in their earliest stages. These include:

  • Arthritis

  • Many types of autoimmune diseases

  • Musculoskeletal pain

  • Musculoskeletal system disorders

  • Osteoporosis

A rheumatologist has finished 4 years of medical school and 3 years of training in internal medicine or pediatrics. They also have had 2 to 3 more years of special training in rheumatology. They may also be board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

Orthopedic surgeon

An orthopedic surgeon or orthopedist is a doctor with special training in orthopedic surgery. An orthopedist is trained to know how the musculoskeletal system works. This means they can diagnose a condition or disorder. The orthopedist can also find and treat an injury and give rehabilitation to an affected area. This provider can help you prevent further damage.

The orthopedist may have completed up to 14 years of training. The orthopedic surgeon may also become board certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery.

Many orthopedic surgeons practice general orthopedics. Others focus on certain areas of the body. This might be the foot, shoulder, or spine. And others focus on certain areas of care, such as sports medicine. Some orthopedists may focus on several areas. They may also work with other specialists, such as neurosurgeons, rheumatologists, or physiatrists.

Physical therapist

A physical therapist (PT) is a healthcare provider who focuses on body motion and function. They work on these systems: nervous system, muscles and bones, and heart and lungs.

PTs are important members of the healthcare team. They evaluate and give treatment for people with health problems caused by injury, disease, or overuse of muscles or tendons.

PTs have a degree in physical therapy. Many also have a master's or doctoral degree. All graduates must be licensed by their state by passing a national certification test.

PTs may practice in many places. These include:

  • Hospitals

  • Rehabilitation centers

  • Home health agencies

  • Schools

  • Sports facilities

  • Community health centers

  • Private practice

PTs help you live with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. They:

  • Make it easier for you to move

  • Improve your balance and gait

  • Help you move muscles and other soft tissues

  • Teach you how to better use your body

  • Help you use casts or splints

  • Teach you how to use a wheelchair safely

  • Help you recover after a nerve injury

  • Help you set up an exercise program

  • Teach your family how to help you get better

  • Help you manage pain

  • Teach you how to walk safely

Occupational therapist

An occupational therapist (OT) is a healthcare provider who helps people go back to their daily tasks after a disease or an injury. An OT often does the following work to help you recover:

  • Helps plan treatment activities

  • Helps both children and adults grow mentally, socially, and physically

  • Helps children and adults learn how to do daily tasks

  • Leads group or individual treatment to help children and adults in a mental health center learn to cope with daily activities

  • Advises changes in layout and design of the home or school to give children and adults with injuries or disabilities more access and safer mobility

OTs work many places. These include:

  • Hospitals

  • Rehabilitation centers

  • Schools

  • Home care agencies

  • Private practice

  • Government agencies


A podiatrist is a doctor with special training to treat foot and ankle problems. They can prescribe medicine and do surgery. For instance, people who have arthritis in the feet may see a podiatrist for special supportive shoes.


Nurses with special training in rheumatic diseases may help your doctor in assessing your family's and your needs. They may also help by providing, coordinating, and monitoring your treatment plan and care. These nurses also may help educate and answer questions about your specific treatment plan.

Who is affected by arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Arthritis and rheumatic diseases can affect anyone at any age or any race. But some diseases are more common in certain groups:

  • Osteoarthritis is more common in older adults.

  • The incidence of rheumatoid arthritis is 2 to 3 times higher in women than men.

  • Fibromyalgia affects about 4 million adults in the U.S., more commonly in women.

  • Gout is more common in men.

  • Scleroderma is more common in women.

  • Lupus affects women about 8 to 10 times more often than it affects men.

  • Ankylosing spondylitis is more common in men.

What causes arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

Experts don't know what causes most types of rheumatic disease. In many cases, the cause depends on the type of rheumatic disease. But researchers believe that some or all of these things may play a role:

  • Genetics and family history

  • Being overweight

  • Injury

  • Infection

  • Nervous system problems

  • Metabolic problems

  • Too much wear and tear or stress on a joint or joints

  • Environmental triggers

  • Certain hormones

What are the symptoms of arthritis and other rheumatic diseases?

People with arthritis or other rheumatic diseases may each have slightly different symptoms. Also, different types of rheumatic diseases have different symptoms. But the most common symptoms include:

  • Joint pain

  • Joint swelling

  • Joint stiffness that lasts for at least 1 hour in the early morning

  • Chronic joint pain or soreness

  • Warmth and redness in the joint area

  • Limited movement in the affected joint

  • Tiredness (fatigue)

The symptoms of arthritis and other rheumatic diseases may look like other health conditions. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Online Medical Reviewer: Diane Horowitz MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2022
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