Autoimmune diseases (rheumatic diseases) in Singapore

More than 600,000 people in Singapore, or about 11 per cent of the population, suffer from one of several autoimmune diseases (also known as rheumatic diseases).

Yet, little is known about this cluster of conditions that includes lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis. Many are complex autoimmune conditions in which the immune system turns against itself and attacks the body’s major organs.

"Autoimmune diseases (rheumatic diseases) often strike people in their prime, and tends to affect more women than men. In some cases, they are twice as likely to affect Asians compared to Caucasians," shares Professor Julian Thumboo​, Senior Consultant from the Department of Rheumatology and Immunology​ at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth​ group.​​​

5 Life-changing autoimmune diseases (rheumatic diseases)


Rheumatoid Arthritis


​In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the immune system attacks the body's own tissues, such as the joints. It occurs two to three times more frequently in women than men.

Some symptoms: Pain and swelling of the joints, which typically persist for more than six weeks and is usually worst in the morning.

Why research is needed: If not well-treated, RA can lead to progressive joint damage, pain and loss of physical function. Some 20-30 per cent of patients do not respond to currently available therapies.



Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE or Lupus)


In Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE or lupus), the immune system attacks organs like the kidneys, brain, intestines and skin, the blood and joints.

Some symptoms: ​Commonly associated with a butterfly-shaped rash on the face which worsens with sun exposure. Can also lead to swelling around the eyelids, and of feet and legs.

Why research is needed: Lupus treatment isn’t one-size fits-all, being dependent on the symptoms and the organs affected. Early identification is needed to start treatment as soon as possible to prevent organ damage.


Systemic Sclerosis (Scleroderma or Hard Skin)

Systemic sclerosis (scleroderma or hard skin) causes uncontrolled overproduction of fibrous tissue, leading to scarring of organs and blockage of blood vessels.

Some symptoms: Puffy swollen fingers and skin hardening or tightness are among the first signs. Also joint pain and swelling, muscle weakness, breathlessness or persistent dry cough.

Why research is needed: ​Lupus treatment isn’t a one-size fits- all, being dependent on the symptoms and the organs affected. Early identification is needed to start treatment as soon as possible to prevent organ damage.


Spondyloarthritis (SpA)

​In Spondyloarthritis (SpA), the joints of the spine are affected, causing inflammation, severe pain and stiffness in the back. Can also affect the joints, digits and tendons in upper and lower limbs. Partly hereditary.

Some symptoms: Pain and stiffness in the lower back, especially bad in the morning, are among the first signs. The eyes may also be affected, and symptoms include redness and blurred vision.

Why research is needed: Scientists are investigating the genes and bio-markers that can help predict the group of patients likely to develop rapid disease progression.


Osteoarthritis (OA)

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of joint disease, affecting 10-20 per cent of the population, and is linked to age, obesity, sports injuries, family history and other forms of arthritis like gout.

Some symptoms: Recurring pain in affected joints or their surrounding muscles after prolonged or strenuous exercise is one of the first signs of the disease.

Why research is needed: ​No proven treatment yet to delay the progression of the disease. Treatment is mostly aimed at symptom relief, so weight loss, exercise and physiotherapy are often recommended.


Ref: Q15

To learn more about rheumatic diseases, check out:

Rheumatoid Arthritis: What you Need to Know

Facts About Lupus: Who's At Risk?

Systemic Sclerosis: Symptoms and How to Manage

Spondyloarthritis: An Inflammatory Rheumatic Disease

Osteoarthritis: Pain and Inflammation of the Joints

Autoimmune Disorders: Frequently Asked Questions