When Do I Need A Rheumatologist?

Visiting a rheumatologist is the best thing to do when there are pains in the joints or muscles that don't go away in a few days or only partially stop. Do you think you need a rheumatologist?
When Do I Need A Rheumatologist?

Last update: 19 July, 2021

Several specialists can treat musculoskeletal problems depending on the nature of the condition. On many occasions, it’s a rheumatologist who’s in charge of this, but the treatment can also be left in the hands of other professionals. Do you think you may need a rheumatologist? The following article will help you find out.

A rheumatologist is a medical professional who treats conditions that affect the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints. There are other specialties that also address problems with these areas of the body, such as arthrology, osteology, and neurology, among others.

Likewise, when musculoskeletal problems arise from an injury, it’s usually a traumatologist or physical therapist who’s responsible for the treatment, and sometimes an orthopedist. So, what’s a rheumatologist and what do they do? And how can you know if you need a rheumatologist yourself?

What’s a rheumatologist?

A doctor looking at an image of the hip joint with a magnifying glass.
A rheumatologist is a physician who specializes in conditions related to bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints.

A rheumatologist is a physician who specializes in the treatment of musculoskeletal, joint, and so-called rheumatic diseases that include systemic autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatic conditions can cause pain, swelling, stiffness, and deformities in the joints, bones, or supporting muscles. A rheumatologist is able to diagnose and treat these problems but doesn’t perform surgery.

A rheumatologist usually works on an outpatient basis. Sometimes, other physicians will refer you if you need a rheumatologist, but there are also people who come in for direct consultation. They often work in hospitals with an interdisciplinary team on the conditions that fall within their competence.

What does the training of a rheumatologist involve?

A rheumatologist completes their training as a general practitioner and then must specialize as a pediatrician or physician. Once they’ve completed these studies, they specialize in rheumatology for two or three years.

In some countries, rheumatologists must take an examination at the end of their training to gain certification as specialists in this area. Then, they must renew their certification periodically to make sure their knowledge remains up to date.

What conditions can a rheumatologist treat?

A rheumatologist treats a wide range of diseases, all of which have in common the fact that they’re inflammatory or autoimmune. These should affect joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, bones, and blood vessels.

Among the conditions that these specialists treat are the following:

  • Inflammatory, rheumatoid, psoriatic, or juvenile idiopathic arthritis
  • Back pain
  • Osteoarthritis and osteoporosis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Vasculitis
  • Tendinitis and myositis
  • Bursitis
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Reactive arthropathies
  • Gout
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Giant cell arteritis
  • Scleroderma
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica and polymyositis
  • Behcet’s disease
  • Paget’s disease
  • Reiter’s syndrome
  • Sjogren’s syndrome

In total, rheumatologists treat up to 120 different diseases and conditions. They usually gather information from the patient’s and family’s medical history, perform diagnostic tests, and then develop a treatment plan. This may include medications, injections in the affected areas, and sometimes a referral to a physical therapist or another specialist.

When should you make an appointment with a rheumatologist?

It’s common for people to have joint or muscle pain at some point in their lives. If these persist for several days, it’s important to consult a general practitioner for an evaluation of the situation.

If the measures that the general practitioner applies don’t work or work only partially, then you may need a rheumatologist. You should request an appointment when one or more of the following conditions are present:

  • Pain in several joints
  • Pain in a joint unrelated to a known injury
  • Muscle or joint pain along with symptoms such as fever, fatigue, morning stiffness, rash, or chest pain
  • Muscle pain with no apparent cause
  • People who are over 50 years old and have recurrent muscle aches or headaches

Consultation should be made as soon as possible if there’s a family history of autoimmune disease or the symptoms get much worse in a short time. This is because joint pain that isn’t treated quickly may lead to joint damage that could be permanent.

What to expect at your appointment

A doctor looking at the image of a broken arm.
The diagnosis of a rheumatic disease is complex and therefore requires thorough investigation and the performance of various tests.

Rheumatic diseases are complex and not easy to diagnose. Therefore, it’s best not to expect conclusive answers at the first consultation. The doctor will usually perform a clinical examination for signs and symptoms of inflammation and inquire about your family history.

A rheumatologist will also analyze the results of the tests that you’ve undergone so far and will almost always ask for further tests. These may include X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, and ultrasound. These are used to detect musculoskeletal abnormalities.

It’s important to bring the following to your first consultation:

  • Any previous laboratory tests, x-rays, ultrasounds, and MRIs that have to do with the problem you’re concerned with.
  • An updated list of medications you’re taking currently with their exact doses, in addition to those that you have already been tried to treat the condition
  • A list of drug allergies
  • Clear references to autoimmune or rheumatologic diseases that any family members suffer from

Then, based on the information you’ve gathered and the analysis of it, a rheumatologist will establish a treatment plan. Sometimes several consultations are necessary before the professional can make a definitive diagnosis.

If there’s joint pain, you probably need a rheumatologist

Very often, people are referred to an orthopedist instead of a rheumatologist. As a general rule, if there hasn’t been a traumatic injury that originally produced the discomfort, then it’s best to see a rheumatologist first.

Finally, it’s not a good idea to postpone the consultation because you think the pain isn’t strong enough to merit an appointment. If there’s stiffness and inflammation, even if there’s little pain, you should see a rheumatologist who can evaluate the situation.

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