Features August 2019 Issue

Who Treats Arthritis?

Most primary care doctors can treat osteoarthritis. When should you consult a specialist?

If you have joint pain and think it might be arthritis, you may wonder what type of doctor you should see. Should you go to an orthopaedist or a rheumatologist or some otherspecialist?

The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, and for that the place to start is your primary care doctor. "If you have aching joints with activity or walking and it's persisting, it's probably osteoarthritis," says Cleveland Clinic orthopaedist Michael J. Star,MD.

Primary Care Doctor

A primary care doctor can manage osteoarthritis with standard treatments, such as anti-inflammatory pain medications and referral to a physical therapist. The doctor will probably order X-rays. Magnetic resonance imaging is not necessary. "That's usually all that is needed," says Dr. Star.

If the doctor suspects there might be some other cause of joint problems besides osteoarthritis, a rheumatologist will be consulted. If symptoms of osteoarthritis don't improve or get worse, your doctor may send you to an orthopaedist or a rheumatologist for more intense medical management or an orthopaedic surgeon for surgery.

Orthopaedists

5 DrConsult

Steve Debenport | Getty Images

In most cases, a primary care doctor can treat osteoarthritis. X-rays can help make the diagnosis.

Orthopaedists are doctors who treat injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system, including osteoarthritis. For arthritis that gets worse despite treatment, they can perform injections of corticosteroids (powerful anti-inflammatory drugs) or hyaluronic acid (a substance that lubricates joints).

For severe arthritis that causes significant pain and seriously limits daily life, an orthopaedic surgeon can perform surgery, such as joint replacement.

Rheumatologists

Rheumatologists specialize in musculoskeletal diseases and autoimmune conditions. They treat all types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and psoriatic arthritis.

If there is a chance you have something other than osteoarthritis, you will be sent to a rheumatologist. They provide treatment for joint diseases, including prescribing medications and giving injections. They do not perform surgery.

Other Specialists

Sometimes the specialist you see will be dictated by the location of the problem. Some medical institutions have specialized spine centers. This may be the place to go to be treated for osteoarthritis in the spine.

Most doctors, regardless of their specialty, will probably send people with osteoarthritis to a physical therapist. "That is the treatment that's shown to have the greatest benefit," says Dr. Star.

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