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Ask the Expert: When Should You See a Rheumatologist?

physician speaking to spine patient

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! My own friends and family didn’t know much about this field when I chose to go into it and I’ve been in many social situations where I’ve introduced myself as a rheumatologist and have been met with blank stares in return.

So first off, a rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in both musculoskeletal disorders and certain autoimmune conditions. In its simplest form, we can be described as “arthritis” doctors, but really we actually do much more. 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 abnormal 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 months to years before receiving a diagnosis. Gathering the clues and helping patients figure out what’s going on is one of my favorite things about being a rheumatologist.

I absolutely love the opportunity to help my patients figure out a diagnosis, teach them what to expect from their diseases, and devise treatment plans to get them feeling better. If any of the points listed above applies to you or a family member, consider scheduling an appointment with one of the rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery or ask your primary care doctor to help find a rheumatologist near you.

Dr. Alana LevineDr. Alana B. Levine is a rheumatologist at Hospital for Special Surgery. She specializes in rheumatic autoimmune diseases including systemic lupus erythematosus, antiphospholipid syndrome, undifferentiated connective tissue disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Topics: Rheumatology
The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.