All Conditions & Treatments

What Is a Rheumatologist and What Conditions Do They Treat?

A patient meeting with a doctor.

Knowing when to see a rheumatologist can be tricky – especially if you don’t know what a rheumatologist is or what diseases they diagnose and treat! So first off, a rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in both musculoskeletal disorders and certain autoimmune conditions. Simply put, rheumatologists can be described as “arthritis” doctors but, in fact, they do much more.

What is a rheumatologist?

A rheumatologist is a board-certified internist (a physician of internal medicine) or pediatrician who is qualified by additional training and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and other diseases of the joints, muscles, and bones, including those that are inflammatory and autoimmune in nature.

What kind of training do rheumatologists have?

After four years of medical school and three years of training in either internal medicine or pediatrics, rheumatologists devote an additional two to three years in specialized rheumatology training. Most rheumatologists who plan to treat patients choose to become board certified. Upon completion of their training, they must pass a rigorous exam conducted by the American Board of Internal Medicine to become certified in rheumatology.

What do rheumatologists treat?

There are more than 100 types of rheumatic diseases and other conditions that rheumatologists treat, including:

When should you see a rheumatologist?

Sometimes, pain in the joints, muscles, or bones is severe or persists for more than a few days. At that point, you should see your physician.

Many types of rheumatic diseases are not easily identified in the early stages. Rheumatologists are specially trained to do the detective work necessary to discover the cause of swelling and pain. It's important to determine a correct diagnosis early so that appropriate treatment can begin early. Some musculoskeletal disorders respond best to treatment in the early stages of the disease. These diseases often change or evolve over time. Rheumatologists work closely with patients to identify the problem and design an individualized treatment program.

Here are some reasons to see a rheumatologist:

You have been diagnosed with arthritis or a rheumatic disease

There are over 100 types of arthritis and rheumatologists specialize in the care of many of these conditions. Examples of diseases that may be treated by a rheumatologist include rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis (OA), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), vasculitis, Sjogren’s syndrome, gout, scleroderma, antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), myositis, sarcoidosis, polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR), and temporal arteritis (or giant cell arteritis). We take care of many other rare diseases as well.

You have joint pain and/or swelling

Joint pain and swelling may be the first symptoms of rheumatic disease. We know that early diagnosis and treatment of arthritis are the best ways to ensure good outcomes in our patients. If you are suffering from joint symptoms, consider scheduling an appointment with a rheumatologist for an evaluation.

You have been told you have certain blood test results

Certain symptoms or complaints will prompt primary care doctors to order blood tests that may indicate the presence of rheumatic diseases. Examples of these blood tests include: antinuclear antibodies (ANA), rheumatoid factor (RF), and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR). If you have tested positive for one of these tests, consider meeting with a rheumatologist to determine if your symptoms might indicate an underlying condition.

You are having trouble figuring out what’s wrong

Rheumatologists treat many rare diseases that are difficult to diagnose. We often act as detectives to help put together the pieces of a complex puzzle of symptoms and lab tests. Seeing a rheumatologist early on can help patients avoid waiting before receiving a diagnosis. Gathering the clues and helping patients figure out what’s going on is central to rheumatology.

How does a rheumatologist work with other healthcare professionals?

The role the rheumatologist plays in health care depends on several factors and needs. Often the rheumatologist works with physicians who specialize in other areas, as well as many skilled professionals, including nurses, physical and occupational therapists, psychologists, and social workers. Teamwork is important since musculoskeletal disorders often are chronic. Health care professionals can help people with musculoskeletal diseases and their families cope with the changes the diseases cause in their lives.

With the largest group of rheumatologists in the country, HSS is a world leader in the research and treatment of rheumatic disease. HSS embraces a philosophy of integrative care. Your rheumatologist will refer you, as needed, to our staff of expert orthopedists and other physicians who specialize in musculoskeletal health, physical and occupational therapists, psychological support services, and/or other clinical and support services.

If appropriate, you also may choose to participate in one of our clinical trials, which may provide you with early access to new medications under investigation, or other research studies, in which new information to improve the health and well-being of people with rheumatic conditions is being gathered.


The Division of Rheumatology at Hospital for Special Surgery

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Reviewed and updated by Sarah B. Lieber, MD, MS

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