Most individuals seeking consultation at sports medicine clinics are young, healthy athletes with injuries related to a specific activity. However, these athletes may have other systemic pathologies, such as rheumatic diseases, that may initially mimic sports-related injuries. As rheumatic diseases often affect the musculoskeletal system, they may masquerade as traumatic or mechanical conditions. A systematic review of the literature found numerous case reports of athletes who presented with apparent mechanical low back pain, sciatica pain, hip pain, meniscal tear, ankle sprain, rotator cuff syndrome and stress fractures and who, on further investigation, were found to have manifestations of rheumatic diseases. Common systemic, inflammatory causes of these musculoskeletal complaints include ankylosing spondylitis (AS), gout, chondrocalcinosis, psoriatic enthesopathy and early rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Low back pain is often mechanical among athletes, but cases have been described where spondyloarthritis, especially AS, has been diagnosed. Neck pain, another common mechanical symptom in athletes, can be an atypical presentation of AS or early RA. Hip or groin pain is frequently related to injuries in the hip joint and its surrounding structures. However, differential diagnosis should be made with AS, RA, gout, psudeogout, and less often with haemochromatosis and synovial chondochromatosis. In athletes presenting with peripheral arthropathy, it is mandatory to investigate autoimmune arthritis (AS, RA, juvenile idiopathic arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus), crystal-induced arthritis, Lyme disease and pigmented villonodular synovitis. Musculoskeletal soft tissue disorders (bursitis, tendinopathies, enthesitis and carpal tunnel syndrome) are a frequent cause of pain and disability in both competitive and recreational athletes, and are related to acute injuries or overuse. However, these disorders may occasionally be a manifestation of RA, spondyloarthritis, gout and pseudogout. Effective management of athletes presenting with musculoskeletal complaints requires a structured history, physical examination, and definitive diagnosis to distinguish soft tissue problems from joint problems and an inflammatory syndrome from a non-inflammatory syndrome. Clues to a systemic inflammatory aetiology may include constitutional symptoms, morning stiffness, elevated acute-phase reactants and progressive symptoms despite modification of physical activity. The mechanism of injury or lack thereof is also a clue to any underlying disease. In these circumstances, more complete workup is reasonable, including radiographs, magnetic resonance imaging and laboratory testing for autoantibodies.