Arthritis Can Be a Systemic Disease

Organs May Be Affected

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When you think about arthritis, you likely think of a disease that affects the joints. But, some types of arthritis may have extra-articular manifestations, meaning the disease affects areas of the body other than the joints. When this occurs, especially in multiple organ systems of the body, the arthritic disease is said to have systemic effects or is referred to as a systemic disease.

How Arthritis Can Affect the Whole Body

Examples of extra-articular involvement include fever, fatigue, weakness, anemia, nodules, dry eyes, dry mouth, pulmonary fibrosis, pleural effusion (excessive amount of fluid in the lungs), nerve problems, gastrointestinal complications, skin complications, and kidney disease. That's just a sampling from a more extensive list of possible systemic effects which can occur with arthritis and related rheumatic diseases. In fact, extra-articular manifestations can develop even when there is little active joint involvement.

Types of arthritis that are classified as systemic diseases include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus erythematosus
  • Juvenile arthritis
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Vasculitis
  • Scleroderma
  • Sjogren's syndrome

Osteoarthritis is not considered a systemic disease because it affects only the joints and not other organ systems.

Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Always a Systemic Disease?

Not all rheumatoid arthritis patients develop complications outside of the joints. Patients are more likely to develop systemic complications if they are strongly positive for rheumatoid factor. As you might expect, rheumatoid arthritis patients with systemic complications tend to do worse than those without such complications (i.e. prognosis is worse with systemic involvement).

Why Does Rheumatoid Arthritis Affect Other Organ Systems?

Since we know some rheumatoid arthritis patients will develop only joint disease while others will develop systemic disease, you may be wondering why. That is a tough question, like asking why a person gets rheumatoid arthritis at all.

According to rheumatologist Scott J. Zashin, M.D., there is likely a mix of genetics and environmental factors that contribute to why certain cases of rheumatoid arthritis are systemic. The risk of systemic disease is greatly increased when a patient has anti-CCP or rheumatoid factor antibodies -- the presence of which is influenced by environmental factors, like smoking, and a person's genetic makeup.

Bottom Line

There are over 100 types of arthritis. Systemic involvement is more likely with inflammatory types of arthritis. For example, chronic systemic inflammation can be indirectly linked to causes of death in rheumatoid arthritis due to serious infections, cardiovascular disease, lymphoma, and accelerated atherosclerosis. Systemic disease is serious. Bringing inflammation under control is essential.  

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Article Sources
  • Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. Arthritis Foundation. 13th Edition.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: Early Diagnosis and Treatment. Cush, Weinblatt, Kavanaugh. Chapters 2 and 3. Professional Communications, Inc. Third edition.
  • Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. Ninth edition. Elsevier. Part 18. Arthritis Accompanying Systemic Disease.
  • Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. Rheumatoid Arthritis Signs and Symptoms. Ruffing and Bingham. Updated 01/13/16.