Should You See a Rheumatologist for Osteoarthritis?

7 Signs That You Need Specialist Care

An elderly patient talks with her doctor.
Terry Vine/Getty Images

Arthritis can often be managed under the care of a general physician. However, as the disease advances, the tools needed to properly manage the disease may beyond the scope of your doctors. With ongoing advances in our understanding of arthritis, a primary care doctor is not always able to keep up with new procedures, protocols, and medications.

In such cases, it may be time to bring a new member into your healthcare team. Chief among these is a rheumatologist who specializes in osteoarthritis as well as rheumatoid arthritis and related disease.

Whether or not you need a specialist depends on the stage of your disease and how typical your case may be. The following insights should help you decide.

Role of the Primary Care Doctor

Your primary care doctor will able to make an initial assessment following a physical examination. They can order X-rays, blood tests, or any other diagnostic tests needed to support his initial assessment. Your primary care doctor can also prescribe medications to relieve pain and other arthritis symptoms.

After test results come back and enough time has passed to evaluate how you are doing on the prescribed medications, your doctor may decide that they can handle your case. If not, they may decide to refer you to a specialist in arthritis diseases known as a rheumatologist.

Role of the Rheumatologist

After consulting with your primary care doctor, it may be that your diagnosis is not clear-cut. Or you may seem to have a complicated case. At that point, it may be wise to see a rheumatologist.

A rheumatologist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases, a group of disorders characterized by chronic, often intermittent pain affecting the joints or connective tissues.

Rheumatologists have additional education and training, making them a better choice for complicated cases. As the patient, you may want to a rheumatologist if:

  • Your pain is unrelenting.
  • Your symptoms are persistent or worsening despite treatment.
  • Your doctor is unable to diagnose the underlying cause.
  • Your symptoms are flaring more frequently or more severely.
  • You are less able to handle tasks you use to be able to manage.
  • You are becoming increasingly homebound.
  • Your condition is lowering your quality of life.

A rheumatologist can also consult on a limited basis to offer a second opinion about whether your treatment plan is appropriate and optimal for your condition. Your primary care doctor won't resent that you want a second opinion; they will more than likely encourage it.

Once you have your second opinion, you can return to your primary doctor for regular follow-up appointments.

A rheumatologist does not perform surgery. If surgery is indicated, an orthopedic surgeon would be your best option.

Experience

Rheumatology is a sub-specialty of internal medicine. After residency training, the physician would complete fellowship training in rheumatology, typically a two-year program. Rheumatologists are usually board-certified in both internal medicine and rheumatology. Like all physicians, rheumatologists much obtain a state license to practice where they work.

From college to certification, rheumatologists must undergo four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, three years of residency, and two to three years in a rheumatology fellowship program.

You can confirm a rheumatologist's credentials on the Federation of State Medical Board's Physician Data Center website.

A Word From Verywell

You will have to start by checking your health insurance coverage and its requirements. Insurance companies may require that you see a primary doctor before consulting with any specialist.

A good team of doctors is invaluable. Make sure you're confident in your team and request a referral to a specialist if your case is complicated or your symptoms are worsening and not being fully addressed.

Was this page helpful?