Should You See a Rheumatologist for Osteoarthritis?

An elderly patient talks with her doctor.
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When is it time to call the rheumatologist? You may suspect you have osteoarthritis, or you may have been diagnosed with it for many years and wonder whether you need to see an osteoarthritis specialist for the condition. A rheumatologist is a specialist in osteoarthritis as well as rheumatoid arthritis and related conditions.

Whether you need a specialist, or your condition can be appropriately managed by your primary care doctor depends on the stage of your disease and how typical your case may be. The following advice should help you decide.

Consult With Your Primary Care Doctor First

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 rheumatologist — a specialist in arthritis diseases.

Rheumatologists Are Trained to Handle Complicated Conditions

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, requesting a referral. Rheumatologists have additional education and training, making them the better choice for complicated cases.

Patients Can Request Referral to an Osteoarthritis Specialist

As the patient, you have the right to request a referral to a rheumatologist. What might cause you to ask for that referral? If your pain is unrelenting, if your symptoms persist or worsen, or if you feel you are becoming more disabled, it may be the appropriate time to see a rheumatologist.

A Rheumatologist May Serve as a Second Opinion

A rheumatologist can be consulted 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 may even encourage it. Once you have your second opinion, you can return to your primary doctor for regular, follow-up appointments.

An Experience of Needing a Rheumatologist

Carol has rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. She has a primary care doctor, a rheumatologist, and an orthopedic surgeon. Her rheumatologist handles all matters related to arthritis. Her primary care doctor handles all matters except arthritis. In addition, she has an orthopedic surgeon on-board for joint replacements or other arthritis-related surgeries.

Bottom Line

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.

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