Arthritis is a painful disease that affects nearly 350 million people worldwide. The condition is characterized by the presence of severe inflammation in the joints making movement difficult. There are currently over 100 types of arthritis and related conditions, and the number keeps increasing. While the term arthritis is representative of a variety of causes and symptoms, many types have the potential to become debilitating if not diagnosed and treated properly.

The first step in arthritis treatment is obtaining an accurate diagnosis. This path often begins with a general practitioner or family doctor. For some patients, their primary care doctor can adequately diagnose and treat their arthritis.

When the cause of disease is not as clear, the opinion of a specialist may be sought to determine the appropriate course of treatment. Other cases when it may be appropriate to see a specialist include:

  • Very severe or disabling arthritis
  • Arthritis that affects other body parts besides the joints
  • Arthritis is in conjunction with another serious medical condition
  • Arthritis symptoms worsen despite treatment
  • A patient’s arthritis requires treatments that the primary care physician has less experience with or would otherwise prefer it handled by a specialist.

Rheumatologists are doctors specializing in the nonsurgical treatment of arthritis and are often consulted to further diagnose arthritis symptoms and manage a patient’s arthritis treatment plan.

See What Is a Rheumatologist?

When symptoms become severe or other body systems are involved, additional specialists may become involved to help the patient manage pain and maintain the ability to function in daily life. Possible specialists include:

  • Physiatrists are doctors specializing in physical and rehabilitation medicine. Through the use of non-surgical treatments like exercise, medication, or steroid or trigger point injections, physiatrists help their patients to restore an adequate level of functioning and overcome physical limitations.
  • Orthopedic surgeons are trained in the surgical treatment of degenerative diseases of the joints. Surgery is usually considered only after conservative treatments have failed.
  • Other conservative therapies such as chiropractic, physical therapy, and occupational therapy are used to help patients maintain mobility and teach techniques for pain management.

The best type of treatment for each patient is different, depending on the type of arthritis, severity and location of symptoms, and any underlying medical conditions that may interfere. There are often multiple healthcare professionals involved in any one patient’s arthritis treatment, and the focus is on reducing joint pain and inflammation, aiming to prevent further joint damage, and helping patients maintain an active lifestyle.

Dr. Marshall Emig is a physiatrist practicing at the UCHealth Spine Center, where he specializes in treating spine, joint, and sports-related pain. Dr. Emig has written several articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and he serves as an Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado.