A Rheumatologist is a specialist for diagnosis (detection) and treatment of musculoskeletal disease and systemic autoimmune conditions commonly referred to as rheumatic diseases. These diseases can affect the joints, muscles, and bones causing pain, swelling, stiffness, and deformity.
Autoimmune conditions occur when the immune system sends inflammation to areas of the body causing damage/symptoms. These diseases can also affect the eyes, skin, nervous system, and internal organs. Rheumatologists treat joint disease similar to orthopedic specialists but do not perform surgeries. Common diseases treated by rheumatologists include osteoarthritis, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic back pain, tendinitis, and lupus.
Everyone experiences muscle and joint pain from time to time. When the muscle and joint pain is not resolving as one would expect, additional evaluation may be needed. Typically, the primary care physician is seen for the first evaluation. If there is concern for an underlying rheumatic condition, he/she will refer you to rheumatology for evaluation.
Earlier referral should be made if you have relatives with autoimmune or rheumatic disease (as these conditions run in families) or if the symptoms are significantly worsening over a short period of time. Some of the signs and symptoms can improve or temporarily resolve when initially treated but can return once the medication is stopped. If the symptoms continue to return, a rheumatology evaluation may be needed. Although treatment should not be delayed while awaiting a rheumatology appointment, certain medications can improve symptoms and make a diagnosis more difficult.
Joint damage can occur if the symptoms of joint pain are ignored or not treated properly over a period of time. This damage cannot always be reversed with treatment and may be permanent. Do not delay appropriate evaluation.
The rheumatologist will review the results of any prior testing that has been performed on a patient and may order additional laboratory tests to assess inflammation and/or extra antibody production within the bloodstream and order radiographic testing (X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan or MRI) to assess for musculoskeletal abnormalities.
All of these results will be combined to determine the source of a patient’s symptoms and develop a personalized treatment plan. During follow-up appointments, rheumatologists may treat reoccurring conditions or talk with patients about medications, coping mechanisms, techniques for preventing disability or regaining function, and ways to improve their quality of life.