This variety of rheumatism is quite distinct from the other forms, being in all probability due to some special germ. It occurs in temperate climates during the fall, winter, and spring less often in summer. Persons more frequently suffer between the ages of ten and forty years. It is rare in infants; their pain and swelling of the limbs can be attributed more often to scurvy, or to surgical disease with abscess of joint or bone. Exposure to cold and damp, in persons insufficiently fed, fatigued, or overworked, is the most common exciting cause.
Symptoms. Rheumatic fever may begin with tonsilitis, or other sore throat, with fever and pains in the joints. The joints rapidly become very painful, hot, red, swollen, and tender, the larger joints, as the knees, wrists, ankles, and elbows, being attacked in turn, the inflammation skipping from one joint to another. The muscles near the joints may be also somewhat swollen and tender. With the fever, which may be high (the temperature ranging from 102° to 104° F.), there are rapid pulse, copious sweating, and often the development of various rashes and minute blisters on the skin. There is also loss of appetite, and the bowels are constipated. The urine is usually very dark colored. Altogether, victims of the disease are truly pitiable, for they suffer agony, and are unable to move without increasing it. The weakness and prostration are marked. Small, hard lumps, from the size of a shot to that of a pea, sometimes appear on the skin of the fingers, hands, wrists, knees, and elbows. These are not tender; they last for weeks and months. They are seen more often in children, and are most characteristic of rheumatic fever, but do not show themselves till late in the disease.
Complications of rheumatic fever are many. In about half the cases the heart becomes involved, and more or less permanent crippling of the heart persists in after life. Unconsciousness and convulsions may develop more often when the fever runs high.
Lung trouble and pleurisy are not infrequent. Chorea or St. Vitus’s dance follows inflammatory rheumatism, in children, in some instances. Repeated attacks at intervals, varying from one to four or five years, are rather the rule more particularly in young persons. Acute rheumatism frequently takes a milder form, with slight fever (the temperature running not over 100° or 101° F.) and slight pain, and swelling of the joints. In children this is a common occurrence, but heart disease is just as apt to follow, and, therefore, such cases should receive a physician’s attention at the earliest moment. Recovery from rheumatic fever is the usual result, but with an increased tendency to future attacks, and with the possibility of more or less permanent weakness of the heart, for acute rheumatism is the most common origin of chronic heart troubles. The milder form often follows the more severe, and may persist for a long time. The duration of rheumatic fever is variable; in severe cases the patient is bedridden for six weeks or so.
Rheumatism may be named through a mistake in diagnosis. There are numerous other febrile disorders in which inflammation of the joints may occur. Among these are gonorrhea, pneumonia, scarlet fever, blood poisoning, diphtheria, etc. The joint trouble in these cases is caused by the toxins accompanying the special germ which occasions the original disease, and the joint inflammation is not in any way connected with rheumatism. The constant attention of a physician is emphatically demanded in every case of rheumatic fever, since the complications are so numerous, and since permanent damage of the heart may be prevented by proper care. Only frequent examinations of the heart by the medical man will reveal the presence or absence of heart complications.
Treatment. It appears extremely doubtful whether rheumatic fever can be cut short by any form of treatment. The disease is self limited, that is, it will pass away of itself after a certain time. The pain, however, can be rapidly abated by treatment. Warmth is of great value. It is best for the patient to sleep between blankets instead of sheets, and to wear flannel nightgowns, changing them as often as they become damp with sweat. To facilitate the changing, it is well to have the nightgowns slit all down the front, and also on the outside of the sleeves. Wrapping the joints in cotton batting and applying splints to secure absolute rest are great aids to comfort. The diet should be fluid, consisting of gruels, milk, broths, and soups. To relieve pain in the joints, cloths, wrung out of a saturated solution of baking soda and very hot water, wrapped about the joint and covered with oil silk will be found extremely serviceable. Oil of wintergreen is another remedy which has proven of value when applied to the joints on cloths saturated in the oil and covered with cotton wool.
The bed must be smooth and soft, with good springs. High fever is reduced by the employment of cold to the head and by sponging the body with cool water at intervals of two hours or so.
The two drugs of most value are some form of salicylic acid and an alkali. Sodium salicylate in solution in water should be given to the adult in doses of ten to fifteen grains every two hours till the pain is relieved, and then once in four hours as long as the fever lasts. At the same time baking soda should be administered every three hours, one half a level teaspoonful dissolved in water, and this may be continued as long as the fever persists. The patient must use a bedpan in relieving the bladder and bowels, and should remain in bed for a great while if the heart is damaged. It is a disease which no layman should think of treating if it is possible to obtain the services of a medical man.