Arthritis can occur in multiple joints at the same time

Rheumatism - when the joints hurt

The illness

The Rheumatoid arthritis Colloquially it is often referred to as "rheumatism" for short. Experts also speak of chronic polyarthritis. That means: a permanent inflammation of many joints. About 1 in 100 people is affected, women more often than men. The exact cause of the disease is currently unknown. The body's own defense system and a hereditary disposition probably play a role in this. As far as we know today, the inflammation takes place throughout the body. Joints are often affected, less often vessels and organs such as the heart, lungs or eyes.

Without treatment, the inflammation progressively spreads to other joints, tendon sheaths, and bones. Movements hurt more and more, even simple movements can be difficult. As a result, some of those affected can no longer work and have to retire early.

What are the signs?

Rheumatoid arthritis can begin slowly or suddenly. Usually it runs in batches. Discomfort is common in the hands. Both halves of the body are almost always affected. Over time, large joints such as the shoulder and knee can be affected. The exact course cannot be predicted.

Different symptoms can appear:

  • warm, red, and swollen joints

  • painful joints, especially when moving; even a handshake can hurt

  • stiff joints, especially in the morning they are difficult to move for a long time

  • reduced strength in the hands, for example it is difficult to unscrew a bottle

  • general signs such as weakness, tiredness, loss of appetite,

    Weight loss and fever

  • deformed and stiffened joints as well Rheumatoid nodules - these are firm swellings under the skin

Recognize the disease early

It is important to recognize the disease early. In the first 6 months, the joints are not yet affected by the inflammation. Therefore: If you have swollen more than 2 joints for more than 6 weeks, your doctor should see you to a specialist for rheumatology (Specialist in joint diseases). With the early start of treatment, serious consequences such as poorly mobile hands or damaged joints should be avoided as far as possible.

The treatment

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. But there are good ways to delay the progression of the disease and alleviate the symptoms. The following drugs are used to stop inflammation and reduce pain:

  • Basic drugs: They slow down or stop inflammation and mostly stop joint destruction. However, they do not work immediately, but only after a few weeks.

  • Cortisone remedies: In contrast to the basic drugs, they work immediately. They suppress inflammation very well and quickly relieve pain. Cortisone drugs are only used until the basic drugs work.

  • Painkiller: They can alleviate the symptoms immediately and often have an anti-inflammatory effect. The joint destruction doesn't stop them.

All drugs are very effective for rheumatism, but can have significant side effects. Ask your doctor or pharmacist.

Other treatment options are:

  • Physiotherapy and occupational therapy: from the beginning to keep the joints flexible and to avoid bad posture and overload in everyday life

  • psychological or psychotherapeutic support: can help to cope better with the illness in the event of severe distress

  • Surgery: can replace damaged joints with artificial ones if the disease is severe

In order to be able to assess the course of the disease, the experts recommend annual x-ray examinations of hands and feet.

What you can do yourself

  • It is good to know that you are unlikely to see any results immediately. It may take time for it to work.

  • Should any intolerance or peculiarities of the treatment or your illness arise in the course of the treatment, discuss these with your doctor.

  • In the case of acute inflammation in individual joints, it can help if you specifically cool them.

  • Smoking has an adverse effect on the course of the disease. You can find support for quitting smoking, for example, at

  • Exercise is good for you. Activities that are gentle on the joints such as swimming, cycling, gymnastics or dancing are recommended. Be aware of your personal limits. Ask your doctor if you are unsure.

  • Comfortable and stable shoes are important. These relieve your joints. You can order insoles, special roll-off aids or orthopedic shoes and have them made for you.

  • It is advisable to use certain aids such as openers for bottles or jam jars, pen thickeners, scissors with automatic opening mechanisms and handles for combs, toothbrushes and knives. These things make your everyday life easier and protect your joints.

  • You can take part in patient training: There you will receive information and practical advice on your illness.

  • It can be helpful to share your experiences with other people affected, for example in a self-help group.

March 2017, published by the German Medical Association and the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians