What Is a Rheumatologist?

Rheumatologists are physicians specially trained to diagnose and treat more than 100 types of arthritis and related disorders that affect the body’s joints, bones, muscles, and connective tissue. Common examples include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and crystal diseases such as gout and pseudogout.

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Rheumatic conditions are typically chronic, meaning the conditions persist over long periods of time, often lifetimes, even though symptoms may not always be present. Rheumatic disorders affect approximately 46 million people in the United States, and while not all of those people need to see a rheumatologist, many do.1

See What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)?


Why See a Rheumatologist?

A patient typically makes an appointment with a rheumatologist when he or she needs:

  • An accurate diagnosis for chronic symptoms affecting the musculoskeletal system
  • Expertise in devising pain relief and treatment plans for a rheumatologic condition

Rheumatologists have the depth and breadth of expertise necessary to accurately diagnosis and treat a wide variety of conditions. A patient can then receive an early diagnosis and start the appropriate treatments before developing joint damage.

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Diagnosis can be challenging
Rheumatologic disorders can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms may come and go or mimic other conditions. For example, rheumatoid arthritis, reactive arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia can exhibit similar symptoms. The earlier a patient receives an accurate diagnosis, the earlier effective medical treatment and pain relief can begin.

See Blood Tests to Help Diagnose Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Early treatment may facilitate long-term wellness
Getting treatment early in the disease process helps a patient return to normal activities as soon as possible. Early treatment is also important for two more reasons:

  • Some rheumatic conditions are more responsive to treatment in their early stages.
  • Early treatment can minimize the long-term, cumulative damage that is sometimes caused by chronic rheumatic conditions.

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For example, among people who are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis but do not receive treatment in the first 2 to 3 years, 20 to 30% experience permanent disability that prevents them from working.2


Do Patients with Osteoarthritis Need a Rheumatologist?

Osteoarthritis affects 27 million Americans and is one of the most commonly treated and extensively researched medical conditions in the U.S.3

See What Is Osteoarthritis?

A person who has osteoarthritis may seek treatment from a rheumatologist, a primary care doctor, a physiatrist, an orthopedist, or a combination of those. In addition, the patient may be referred to a physical or occupational therapist.

What type of health professional an osteoarthritis patient should see depends on many factors, including the patient’s personal preferences, access and proximity to care, and whether or not there are additional medical problems that may complicate diagnosis and treatment.


  • 1.World Health Organization. Chronic Rheumatic Conditions. World Health Organization. Copyright 2013. Accessed January 16, 2013. www.who.int.
  • 2.Rindfleisch JA, Muller D. Diagnosis and management of rheumatoid arthritis. (Abstract Only) Am Fam Physician. 2005 Sep 15;72(6):1037-47. Review. PubMed PMID: 16190501.
  • 3.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Osteoarthritis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page updated September 1, 2011. Accessed January 16, 2013. www.cdc.gov.