Medical terms can be confusing, but this guide will make you an expert in no time.
If you live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you may feel bombarded and overwhelmed with medical terminology. Even outside of the doctor’s office, when you turn to the internet for advice, it soon becomes apparent that there’s a whole language dedicated to the condition itself.
In addition to new and obscure medical language, there are many slang words and phrases used in chat rooms, support groups, and among fellow Rheum mates! This may leave you with more questions than answers.
As with learning any new language, it’s best to immerse yourself in new vocabulary. It’s not as daunting as it seems, and in no time at all, you’ll be an expert.
Here’s a glossary of some of the most important terms about RA that will help you on this journey.
This refers to discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It’s often used in reference to how society prioritizes the needs of non-disabled people.
Everyday routines and skills that involve functional mobility and personal care. This includes activities such as bathing, dressing, toileting, and eating. Health professionals may use ADLs as a measurement to determine an individual’s abilities and needs.
Low red blood cell count. This can be a symptom of RA.
An antibody that attacks otherwise healthy tissue. Anti-CCP is commonly produced when you have RA, and can be detected by a blood test.
A lab test that is more specific than rheumatoid factor (RF) for the diagnosis of RA.
A medical term for joint pain.
Inflammation of the joints that can cause pain and limited mobility. It is a broad term that encompasses several different types of arthritis, each with different symptoms.
People living with a chronic condition, such as arthritis, may refer to themselves as a warrior.
A disease where the immune system attacks and destroys healthy tissue.
A type of cognitive dysfunction associated with and caused by many chronic illnesses. This can be from sleep impairment, symptoms of a condition, medications used to treat it, or the condition itself.
This refers to what the patient states, in their own words, as their reason for seeking medical care. This is often used at the beginning of medical office visit notes.
Any health condition that lasts for a long time, more than 1 year, and typically can’t be cured.
This term refers to the occurrence of more than one condition at the same time. Conditions that are described as comorbidities are usually chronic or long-term. Comorbidities are common among adults with rheumatic diseases like arthritis, and can include obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
A CT scan combines a series of X-rays taken from different angles to create cross-sectional images. This is used to visualize the inside of the body including bone, blood vessels, and soft tissues. It’s more detailed than X-ray, creating 360-degree views of the body’s structures.
A substance the liver produces in response to inflammation. It is therefore a marker of inflammation, but it is nonspecific as CRP levels can be elevated in many inflammatory conditions.
DMARDs are medications used to treat autoimmune, inflammatory diseases, like RA. These help preserve joints by inhibiting inflammation. There are several different types of DMARDs, generally categorized into three types, each working in slightly different ways.
Some DMARDs are prescribed together as combination therapy. This may also be called double therapy or triple therapy.
This is a medical abbreviation for diagnosis.
This term refers to fluid retention caused by swelling. This can be a symptom of RA with swollen joints.
Any unusual redness of the skin. It’s caused by the dilation, irritation, or injury of blood capillaries resulting in a reddish hue to the skin. The two major erythemas are erythema multiforme and erythema nodosum.
ESR is used as a marker of inflammation, which is nonspecific. It is measured by a blood test, which determines how quickly red blood cells settle in a test tube. A faster than normal rate and a higher ESR may indicate inflammation in the body.
A flare, aka flare-up, refers to heightened disease activity, which is often unexpected and sudden. It can be related to environmental triggers, stress, or unknown reasons.
A gene is the basic unit of inheritance, passed from parent to child, that contains information about your physical and biological traits. All of your genes make up your own human genome.
This refers to the science of heredity — how diseases, conditions, and traits are inherited.
A medical system from the late 1700s using natural substances to heal the body. It follows a “like cures like” doctrine, believing that a substance that causes symptoms of a disease in healthy people can cure similar symptoms in those experiencing them. It might be referred to as alternative or complementary medicine.
These antigens help your immune system identify the differences between healthy body tissue and foreign substances that may cause infection. Among all the genetic risk factors found to date, the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genetic marker is believed to be the most significant one for the development of RA.
The reaction of the immune system to foreign substances.
A complex network of specialized cells and organs that work together to defend the body against attacks by foreign substances, such as bacteria and viruses.
Both terms refer to having a weakened immune system and a reduced ability to fight infections. Immunocompromised usually refers to internal factors, whereas immunosuppressed refers to external factors such as medications used to treat RA.
This refers to the thickening and hardening of skin. The area can become reddened and hot to the touch.
The invasion of the body by microorganisms that reproduce and multiply, causing disease.
Refers to your body’s response to injury or disease. This is noted by erythema (redness), elevation (raised area of concern), pain, or induration (heat).
A class of medications used to treat RA. They are typically oral and more convenient than previously available medications, such as DMARDs.
By using a long, thin needle, a small sample of fluid is removed from the joint, to relieve swelling and for testing in the laboratory. This can help differentiate infection, gout, and RA.
An MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take pictures of soft tissues and organs of the body. This is more detailed than X-rays. This is typically a longer test, done in a closed environment.
A general feeling of illness, being run down, or flu-like. Feeling sickly.
Slang. The 24-hour period after administration of medications used to treat RA can feel different with significant fatigue, lethargy, lack of motivation, and feeling disconnected from reality. Methotrexate (MTX) hangover is very commonly discussed in public forums, which might also be referred to as methotrexate fog.
NSAIDs are used to relieve pain and decrease inflammation. These are available both over the counter (OTC) and by prescription (Rx). Some types of NSAIDs include ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, and meloxicam.
This is a medical abbreviation for over-the-counter, when no prescription is necessary.
Slang. When pain inhibits one’s sleep, which can be common with RA. It’s a combination of the words pain and insomnia.
This refers to something that you can feel, like a mass or heat.
Numbness and tingling sensations, such as “pins and needles.”
If you are predisposed to a certain condition, it means you are more susceptible or likely to develop it based on genetics or other factors.
When there are no longer symptoms of a disease.
RA is a form of autoimmune, inflammatory arthritis where the body erroneously attacks healthy cells of the small joints, including the hands, feet, ankles, and wrists. The disease can affect the whole body. RA varies from patient to patient in symptoms, response to treatment, and severity.
RF is an antibody that’s often present in the blood of people with RA, but not usually in the blood of people with psoriatic arthritis (PsA). A blood test can sometimes distinguish between the two conditions.
Slang. This term is used by people living with autoimmune, or rheumatological, diagnoses. It represents the way that people can feel connected by their rheumatological medical diagnosis.
Medical abbreviation for a prescription.
When blood tests are negative for tests performed. It’s commonly used in reference to measuring RF and anti-CCP.
When blood tests are positive for tests performed. It’s commonly used in reference to measuring RF and anti-CCP.
Slang. This is often used by people living with chronic health conditions to describe themselves. The term came from the idea of “Spoon Theory,” coined by Christine Miserandino, which uses hypothetical spoons to represent the limited amount of energy one with a chronic illness has. There are many groups, hashtags, branding, and support communities that use this theory.
This is short for corticosteroids. Steroids like prednisone are synthetic (human-made) versions of hormones that naturally occur in the body. They are medications used to control inflammation by inhibiting the immune response.
When something is systemic, it affects the entire body. For example, fevers are systemic, affecting the whole body, whereas a rash is not; it’s localized to a specific area.
A type of white blood cell (WBC) that’s part of the immune system. These help the body fight disease. In someone who has an autoimmune diseases, T cells can be overproduced and lead to inflammation and uncontrolled skin cell reproduction.
Something that can lead to the start of a condition or worsen a known diagnosis.
Injuries and infections are common triggers, but some people also find that weather, food, and emotional stress impact their condition.
A Vectra DA blood test measures proteins in the blood that are biomarkers for RA, resulting in a vectra score between one and 100. It’s not used to diagnose RA, but instead to assess RA disease activity. This is not available everywhere and is not performed on every patient with RA. A lower score from this test suggests that you have lower disease activity.
An X-ray produces an image of the inside of the body, which is good for visualizing fluid, air, and bone. This uses a powerful, invisible ray made up of very short waves that are similar to light.
The Zebra is the official symbol for rare diseases in the United States.
Medically reviewed on August 02, 2022
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