Rheumatologists are medical professionals who specialize in treating any kind of joint, tendon, ligament, bone or muscle condition. Rheumatologists diagnose conditions and provide medical treatment when necessary, but they do not perform surgery. Some doctors choose to specialize in a specific treatment, known as a subspeciality. This may include treating chronic joint pain, soft tissue diseases, juvenile rheumatic conditions or autoimmune joint conditions.
Many rheumatic conditions are difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are so common with other conditions. It is important to visit a rheumatologist if you are experiencing joint and muscle pain. The longer you wait to get diagnosed, the worse your condition becomes, which makes it much harder to treat. More information about what a rheumatologist can do for you is covered below.
What Conditions do Rheumatologists Treat?
There are over 100 autoimmune and inflammatory conditions rheumatologists treat. This includes any kind of issue that affects your joints, tendons, bones, muscles, ligaments, and blood vessels. Some common examples include arthritis, osteoporosis, and tendonitis. Conditions like lupus, bursitis, scleroderma, and Reiter’s syndrome are also treated by a rheumatologist. Because they treat so many issues, rheumatologists perform a number of different procedures.
In most situations, the first procedure a rheumatologist performs is a complete physical. If you see a rheumatologist, you can expect to get multiple physicals throughout the course of your treatment, as this is one of the most effective ways to tell if the autoimmune or inflammatory condition is still present. During a physical exam, the rheumatologist will check your pulse, listen to your lungs and heart, and check for swollen lymph nodes. Additionally, he or she will ask if you experience any pain or stiffness.
If you do experience pain or stiffness, your doctor may ask you to bend, flex, or stretch the afflicted area. This is a good way to examine your joints, allowing the rheumatologist to judge the intensity of your inflammation and gauge your overall range of motion.
Getting a complete physical is important because many joint issues affect multiple parts of your body, but you may only notice it in one area where it is particularly bad. Identifying all the afflicted areas is an important part of coming up with an effective treatment plan. The final part of a physical involves going over both your medical history. This also includes looking at family medical history, as certain conditions are likely to be inherited. Your rheumatologist may be able to recommend treatments or activities you can do to prevent these issues from coming up later in your life.
After your physical, the next step is to run diagnostic tests. The types of tests you need vary depending on your symptoms. One of the most effective ways to test for rheumatic conditions is with a blood test. This not only lets your doctor search for signs of infection or inflammation, but it also lets them check for genetic markers, which may indicate your conditions. Additionally, blood tests show increased antibodies or white blood cells, which can also signal certain rheumatic conditions.
In more severe cases, you may have to get an X-ray or an MRI scan. If your symptoms affect most of your body, you may need a CT scan, which uses X-ray scans to get images at multiple angles.
Treatments for Rheumatic Conditions
One of the most challenging parts of being a rheumatologist is coming up with a treatment plan. Many conditions have multiple treatment options. Which option works best largely depends on your medical history. Every patient responds to treatments in different ways, so in most cases, rheumatologists must create a custom plan for each patient.
Certain joint conditions are treated with anti-inflammatory medication, which must be directly injected into your joint. In some cases, your doctor must first aspirate your joint. During this process, your doctor drains any excess fluids from your joint. This not only keeps the fluid from interfering with your treatment, but doctors can also study it as part of the diagnostic process.
There are also medications rheumatologists can prescribe. Antirheumatic drugs lower your immune system activity, which can slow the spread of select rheumatic conditions. There are also several anti-inflammatory drugs that relieve joint pain. Common examples include aspirin, ibuprofen, and meloxicam.
Finding a Rheumatologist Near You
Most patients visit their primary doctor before seeing a rheumatologist. If your doctor recommends a rheumatologist, he or she may have a list of nearby specialists to choose from. You can also look for a rheumatologist on your own. This may be necessary if your insurance only works within select networks. The American College of Rheumatology has an online search tool to search for certified rheumatologists in your area. Another way to get recommendations is by asking friends or family members. Rheumatic conditions are common, so even if your friends or family have not directly been affected, they may know someone who has.