Take These Steps Immediately if You Suspect You May Have Arthritis

First Steps to Take if You Think You Have Arthritis

If you are noticing aches and pain or stiffness and believe you may have arthritis, what should you do? What symptoms should prompt you to see your doctor?

You may have heard that early treatment of arthritis can lead to fewer complications, and this is true. A timely diagnosis can lead to treatments which may reduce your risk of joint damage and/or need for surgery in the future. We also know that carefully choosing your activities and avoiding overuse can limit the damage from some types of arthritis. Yet in order to have these preventive discussions with your doctor, you need to know if you have the condition.

Where should you begin? Let's talk about the steps you should consider if you are suspicious you have arthritis, beginning with a review of potential symptoms, when to see and how to find an arthritis specialist, and why not to rely on self-treatment or Dr. Google. Then we will explore what you might expect early on and the common ups and downs of a diagnosis. And since misconceptions and rumors abound, we will dispel the myths that make many people reluctant to even entertain the thought that they may have arthritis. The treatment and management of arthritis have changed dramatically since our grandparents were diagnosed.

Finally, let's look at how you can reduce your risk if you don't have arthritis, or instead be empowered in your care if you do.

1
Pay Attention to Early Symptoms of Arthritis

Man with early arthritis knee pain
What should you know if you suspect you may have arthritis?. Todor Tsvetkov/Getty Images

Arthritis is common, and many people suspect they may have the disease. To make this emotional and confusing topic a bit easier to navigate, let's go through six steps that can guide you through what to do if you think you may have 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 may 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 arthritis symptoms. As much as you would like your 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 a 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, we mean things such as whether your pain is constant. What makes your symptoms worse? What makes your symptoms better? Are your symptoms worse at the beginning of the day or at night? In addition to joint-related symptoms, make sure to let your doctor know if you've been experiencing seemingly unrelated symptoms such as fatigue, a fever, or a general sense of being unwell.

2
Limit Self-Treatment of Early Arthritis Symptoms

arthritis tablets
See a doctor before self-treating your symptoms. Photo by Selahattin Bayram (iStockphoto)

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 (such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and  MSM), 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 extremely 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 as delaying appropriate treatment in favor of self-treatment may actually prolong symptoms or ultimately cause more joint damage.

3
Consult With a Well-Respected Doctor

patient with arthritis specialist
Find a good doctor to work with you to diagnose and treat your symptoms. Photo by Carme Barcells (iStockphoto)

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, that's a good place to begin.

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. There are many different types and subtypes of arthritis, and an accurate discrimination of these types is important in choosing the best treatments. Your doctor should be knowledgeable about the latest treatments and be someone you trust.

Sometimes, people 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.

Word of mouth is often the best way to learn about the best doctors. Online ratings are not necessarily helpful and can be misleading if you look at how these are calculated. A doctor may receive a high rating if he is never backed up and is easy to get an appointment with. On the flip side, a doctor who schedules out several weeks may be booked that way for a reason! And it's not uncommon for the doctors who get backed up and have the longest waiting room time to be exactly what you need when you require more time for an appointment than the receptionist booked. If your doctor takes time with others she is more likely to take extra time with you.

Online support communities are one way to learn about rheumatologists in your area. Another good option is to seek out a rheumatologist who is affiliated with a large teaching hospital. Doctors practicing in this setting are often 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.

4
Prepare for the Journey of Arthritis

man and woman jogging
Living with arthritis is a marathon, not a sprint. Photo by Marcel Mooij (iStockphoto)

Many people who are newly-diagnosed want the quick fix or cure for arthritis. For most people with arthritis, however, 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 try to 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.​

5
Shed Your Misconceptions About Arthritis

pill with cure on the front
Become familiar with the myths and misconceptions about arthritis. Photo by Mark Evans (iStockphoto)

There are many misconceptions about arthritis, Some of these can leave people feeling discouraged even before they've begun treatment, and worse yet, some myths can even leave people feeling blamed for their disease. 

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.

Some of the other misconceptions include the claim that arthritis is curable, that arthritis is caused by a bad diet (it isn't), that arthritis only causes mild aches and pains (it can be severe) and that wearing a copper bracelet relieves arthritis. It is no wonder that people newly diagnosed with arthritis don't know which way to turn.

The fact is that osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are just two of the many types of arthritis that exist, and these different forms require different treatments and are managed in different ways.

Start by learning basic facts about your type of arthritis. Find quality resources and always take questions that you may have to your doctor.

6
Expect Ups and Downs With Arthritis

woman looking discouraged
Living with arthritis is characterized by ups and downs. Photo by Marcel Pelletier (iStockphoto)

Pain is an unwelcome intruder on normal daily activities. Every person diagnosed with arthritis hopes that treatment will quickly gain control over the disease. And not only do people with arthritis hope to gain control of their condition but they hope to maintain that control. The truth is that the usual course of arthritis is fraught with ups and downs. Like many chronic health conditions, it can feel like a roller coaster.

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. Some people find it helpful to list out ways to adapt to unforeseen circumstances ahead of time, and there even retreats focused on "resilience training" to help those coping with chronic medical conditions.

7
Living Well With Arthritis (Or Reducing Your Risk)

If you believe you may have arthritis, following the steps above can reduce some of the confusion associated with the diagnosis and early days of coping. 

If you find yourself feeling depressed, you are not alone. Support groups and online support groups are a great place to meet others who have been living fulfilling and enjoyable lives despite having arthritis. Some people have found that keeping a gratitude journal is an excellent way to remind themselves of the positives in life that remain. Keeping a journal is a good place to record the "silver linings" which are so common when coping with a long-term medical condition. Also, take a moment to check out our 10 commandments for living well with arthritis.

If you do not have arthritis, there are still things you can do to reduce your risk. The proverbial "they" tell us that moments in which we think we may have a disease are "teachable moments" and your initial fears might be just the prompt you to look for ways to reduce your risk.

It's not always possible to prevent arthritis but things you can do to lower your risk include maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking (smoking is a risk factor for arthritis), avoiding joint injuries, and being alert to repetitive joint stress related to your occupation. Just make sure not to use these risk factors to blame yourself if you do develop arthritis down the line.

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