Rheumatologists specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect your joints. A primary care doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist if you have osteoarthritis. But if you need surgery, you’ll require an orthopedic surgeon.

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As many as 24% of U.S. adults have arthritis, which can cause joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. The most common kind is osteoarthritis, primarily affecting people older than 45. Some people may develop it at a younger age if they have a joint injury or a problem with the structure of a joint.

Osteoarthritis causes the soft tissues of your joint to break down, affecting the entire joint, including the bone. It tends to get worse over time. It may take years for symptoms to develop in some people but a much shorter time for others.

Treating osteoarthritis often begins with a primary care physician (PCP). They may refer you to a specialist called a rheumatologist. Here’s what to know about rheumatologists and how they can help you manage osteoarthritis.

Rheumatologists are doctors who specialize in treating chronic rheumatic diseases. Rheumatic diseases include conditions that affect your musculoskeletal system, including your:

  • joints
  • tendons
  • ligaments
  • muscles
  • bones

What do rheumatologists treat?

Rheumatologists are board certified and skilled in diagnosing and managing more than 100 conditions affecting your joints and skeletal system.

The conditions they treat include:

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There’s no cure for osteoarthritis, but you can slow the condition’s progression with careful management. Rheumatologists use several sources of information to arrive at a diagnosis, including:

A rheumatologist will try to reduce pain, preserve function, and slow the condition’s progression.

Rheumatologists can help you create a treatment plan and may also prescribe medication. They can also make referrals if you need surgery.

Your PCP is often the first step to a diagnosis. They may be able to spot the warning signs and symptoms and give you a referral to the right specialist for treatment.

Some symptoms and signs they consider before making a referral include:

  • difficulty moving a joint
  • stiffness, pain, or swelling in a joint
  • joints that are red or hot to the touch
  • abnormal lab work that indicates a joint or rheumatic issue
  • previous injury to a joint

Besides your PCP and rheumatologists, several types of healthcare professionals can help get you on your way to feeling better and managing your osteoarthritis.

Other specialists include:

Do rheumatologists perform surgery for osteoarthritis?

Rheumatologists are trained and skilled in diagnosing and treating rheumatic disease and joint disorders but do not perform surgery.

They may refer you to an orthopedic surgeon if they suspect you need surgery. Orthopedic surgeons specialize in performing surgery on bones and joints.

A rheumatologist may also refer you to orthopedic physical therapy.

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Most people’s first stop is a PCP. They may ask you about your symptoms and medical history, perform physical exams, and perform or order testing. They’ll refer you to the right specialist based on their best assessment of your condition.

Treating osteoarthritis may involve interacting with many types of specialists. Among them are rheumatologists, doctors specializing in diagnosing and treating joint conditions. They can talk with you to develop a treatment plan and refer you for surgery if needed.

Because osteoarthritis is a chronic condition with no known cure, you must manage it to slow its progression and maintain your joint function.