Rheumatism – what lies behind this «flowing pain»?

Rheuma: Symptome und Behandlung

Most people are aware of rheumatism, also known as the «flowing pain». Almost two million people in Switzerland suffer from rheumatic disorders. What lies behind this term?

What is rheumatism?

Rheumatism is a collective term for 200 diseases with varying causes, courses and impairments. What links them is that they generally affect the musculoskeletal system, i.e. the joints, spine and soft tissues such as muscles, tendons and ligaments, but also bones. The nervous system or organs such as the heart, kidneys, lungs, intestines, skin or eyes can also be affected.

How rheumatism manifests itself depends on the respective disease. Rheumatism can develop unnoticed for years but is almost always associated with pain. However, most rheumatic complaints can be controlled and treated today.

What are the rheumatic diseases?

Inflammatory rheumatism

More than 100 disorders are classified as inflammatory rheumatic diseases. Examples include:

  • gout
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • arthritis in children
  • polymyalgia
  • Bekhterev's disease
  • psoriatic arthritis
  • Sjögren's syndrome
  • lupus erythematosus

They can occur at any age and arise when the immune system inadvertently attacks the body's own tissue, resulting in what is called an autoimmune disease.

Non-inflammatory rheumatism

Non-inflammatory rheumatism includes osteoarthritis, i.e. rheumatism caused by the breakdown of cartilage. This is the most common rheumatic disease and mostly affects older people. Other bone or connective tissue diseases like osteoporosis, osteopenia, osteogenesis imperfecta, soft tissue rheumatism in the form of fibromyalgia, overloading syndromes such as tendonitis, tennis elbow and heel spur, as well as chronic back pain all count as non-inflammatory rheumatism too.

Rheumatism symptoms

Symptoms of rheumatism can't be summarised in general terms. Key symptoms often include pain in the muscles and the soft tissues in general. Overall, symptoms vary greatly depending on the disorder.

Causes of rheumatism

Just as the symptoms are varied, the causes are too. It is also not entirely clear where rheumatism comes from. However, certain factors seem to favour rheumatic diseases:

  • disturbances of the immune system
  • bacterial or viral diseases
  • excessive strain on joints, due to excess weight or poor posture, for example
  • lack of exercise
  • metabolic disorder or nutrient deficiency

Treating rheumatism

The cause of many rheumatic diseases is still unclear. However, a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of certain forms of rheumatism.

This includes: Exercise Diet Posture Avoidance


Regular exercise of the joints is essential with rheumatism. This is because using and moving the joints in a healthy way is the only way to produce synovial fluid, which protects the cartilage from wear and tear and keeps it in good condition. Physical activities of benefit are:

  • cycling
  • hiking / walking
  • classic cross-country skiing
  • Qi Gong / Tai Chi
  • yoga
  • swimming


The effects of a healthy diet on rheumatism is a subject widely discussed. However, studies show that the Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on people with inflammatory rheumatism. This means:

  • olive oil instead of animal fats (like butter, cream, lard)
  • fish instead of meat
  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • nuts


An active body posture prevents tension: sit or stand upright, keep your head straight, feet anchored firmly on the floor hip-wide and shoulders relaxed. In addition, change your body position (between sitting, standing and lying) regularly.

Avoidance of nicotine and alcohol

Nicotine is harmful to bones and cartilage tissue. It has been proven that the disease takes a milder course in non-smokers and is easier to control with medication. The same applies to alcohol, which is why its consumption should be limited. Abstaining from alco­hol is advisable.

This text was compiled in collaboration with

the Swiss League against Rheumatism

The League works to combat rheumatic diseases and helps healthy people to stay that way through prevention and information programmes. Its services aim to meet the needs that neither the public sector nor profit-seeking providers.

Contact (in german)

Therapy options

To fight rheumatism, rapid and targeted treatment is essential. The earlier the treatment, the better the chances of success. Which therapy is best depends on the individual. The most frequently offered treatments are as follows:

Physiotherapy and occupational therapy

Physiotherapists help patients maintain and improve their mobility, joint function and muscle strength, while occupational therapists help patients to retain their independence despite reduced mobility. This includes strategic tips on how to open a plastic bottle despite the pain, and instruction with the use of aids.

Rheumatism medication

In the case of non-inflammatory rheumatic conditions such as back pain, mild osteoarthritis or soft tissue rheumatism, the use of analgesics, i.e. pain killers without anti-inflammatory effects, is preferred. Cortisone-free anti-inflammatory drugs, known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are used when analgesics aren't sufficiently effective and for inflammatory diseases.


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