What to Do If You Suspect Arthritis

Pay Attention to Early Symptoms

Man with early arthritis knee pain
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I have had arthritis and have been writing about arthritis for decades. The question I am asked over and over is "I think I have arthritis. What should I do?" I've put together six steps that will guide you through what you should do if you suspect arthritis.

When you experience the initial onset of pain in a joint, it's common to think it is due to an acute injury. You try to remember how you hurt yourself. Even without knowingly injuring the joint, you may have unknowingly twisted it or strained it somehow.

It is important to pay attention to early symptoms, though. As much as you would like the symptoms to disappear, they may not. If symptoms persist, consult with your doctor. If you have symptoms beyond pain, such as warmth, redness, and swelling around the joint, see your doctor sooner rather than later. Also, pay attention to details because it will help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition. By details, I mean, is your pain constant? What makes your symptoms worse? What makes your symptoms better? Are your symptoms worse at the beginning of the day or at night?

Limit Self-Treatment of Early Arthritis Symptoms

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Drugstore shelves are packed with over-the-counter remedies, including oral pain relievers (such as acetaminophen), topical pain relievers, dietary supplements for better joint health, heating pads, and massagers. Self-treatment options may make you more comfortable and relieve pain for the short term, but self-treatment does not take away the need for an accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan prescribed by your doctor.

It is important to be diagnosed by a doctor to ensure appropriate treatment. The source of pain or other symptoms must be determined. Self-treatment should be very limited. Delaying appropriate treatment in favor of self-treatment may actually prolong symptoms or ultimately cause more joint damage.

Consult With a Well-Respected Doctor

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Many people who experience joint pain and other arthritis-related symptoms are not sure where to turn. They are often confused when trying to decide which doctor they should see for an examination and consultation. If you are already established with a family doctor or primary care physician, and more importantly, have a good relationship with that doctor, start there.

Your primary doctor can do a preliminary examination and order diagnostic tests. Based on the findings, your primary doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in arthritis and related conditions). It is important to have a doctor who is a good diagnostician. The doctor should be knowledgeable about the latest treatments and be someone you trust.

Sometimes, patients choose to bypass their primary doctor and make an appointment with a rheumatologist. Check whether your insurance requires a referral before you can consult with a rheumatologist. Also, when choosing a rheumatologist, check on the doctor's reputation. When I was first diagnosed, many years ago, I was advised to seek out a rheumatologist who was affiliated with a large teaching hospital. The consensus was that affiliated rheumatologists were the most highly-respected specialists. Another way to find a rheumatologist is to call your local Arthritis Foundation. While they won't recommend a specific doctor, they will give you the list of rheumatologists within your area. The American College of Rheumatology also offers a geographical listing of rheumatologists.

Prepare for the Journey of Arthritis

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Newly-diagnosed patients want the quick fix or cure for arthritis. For most people with arthritis, there is no cure. There have been significant advances in treatment options over the years, but finding the right course of treatment can be a journey. It is not uncommon to start one course of treatment and have to change several times before you find what works best.

Also, it is important to realize that what brings relief to one person may be totally ineffective for you. There are many things to try, including exercise, so be patient as you go through the process of finding what works for you. Even after you have been treated for a period of time, it's very important that you talk to your doctor about new or persistent symptoms. It may be time to change your treatment, if your response is no longer satisfactory.

Shed Your Misconceptions About Arthritis

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There are many misconceptions about arthritis. People who have little experience with arthritis often confuse basic facts with misconceptions about arthritis. That's because many of the misconceptions have persisted for years.

It is a misconception—and probably the biggest misconception—that only old people develop arthritis. Anyone at any age can be affected by arthritis. Actually, it is a little-known fact that about 300,000 children have a juvenile type of arthritis.

Other common misconceptions: Arthritis is curable; arthritis is caused by a poor diet; arthritis is characterized by minor aches and pains; wearing a copper bracelet relieves arthritis. It is no wonder that newly diagnosed arthritis patients don't know which way to turn. Fact is, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are just two of many types of arthritis that exist. Start by learning basic facts about your type of arthritis. Find quality resources and always take questions that you may have to your doctor.

Expect Ups and Downs With Arthritis

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Pain is an unwelcome intruder on normal daily activities. Every person diagnosed with arthritis hopes that treatment will quickly gain control over the disease. Not only do arthritis patients hope to gain control, they hope to maintain that control. The usual course of arthritis is fraught with ups and downs, though.

Even with treatment, you should expect both good days and bad days with arthritis. Some people find that the ups and downs, a major part of dealing with arthritis, are the most difficult aspect. If possible, prepare for those ups and downs by building flexibility into your life.


Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. Elsevier. Ninth edition.