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Home Health Education Living With Joint Pain
Finding the Right Doctors is a Key to Living Well With Arthritis Print E-mail

How do you know what type of doctor you should see for your arthritis pain? Finding your way through the health system and the different medical specialties can be confusing. This article provides information to help you make the most of the medical system and find the physician and treatment that may be best for you.

Where Should You Start?

If you suffer from arthritis, your first step in treatment is to see your primary-care physician (family doctor), pediatrician or internist. "The role of the primary-care physician in a patient's arthritis treatment is crucial," said William Seeds, MD, a specialist in hip and knee replacement. Dr Seeds is a member of a group of orthopaedic practitioners at Ashtabula Clinic in Ohio.

Your primary-care physician may be a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). An osteopath uses a number of different techniques to alleviate pain, restore freedom of motion, and enhance the body's own healing power, according to the American Association of Osteopathic Medicine. Often these techniques are used in conjunction with more conventional forms of medical care, such as prescribing medication and performing surgery.

Your primary-care physician will review your condition and work with you to determine the next appropriate step in your arthritis treatment. The next step may include referring you to a specialist.

A number of different specialists may be involved in the care of an arthritis patient. Often a team approach is used. The goal is to treat all aspects of arthritis pain and help you learn to manage your condition.

What is the Role of a Primary-Care Physician?

Primary-care physicians see their patients regularly to monitor their health and their use of specialty care. Your primary-care physician can help assure that medicines prescribed by different doctors are compatible. "Primary-care physicians are my lifeline," said Dr. Seeds. "I am able to provide my patients with top-notch care because of my relationship with their primary-care physician."

Most importantly, your primary-care physician is your guide through the medical system. It is sometimes difficult to decide which specialist is most appropriate for a particular condition; your primary-care physician knows your history and understands the roles of the various medical specialties.

Based on your circumstances, there are several types of arthritis specialists that your primary-care physician may recommend. This is not a comprehensive list of clinical specialties; rather, we'll look at front-line arthritis specialists who may be called upon for consultations.


The American College of Rheumatology defines a rheumatologist as an internist or pediatrician who is qualified by additional training and experience in the treatment of arthritis and other diseases of the joints, muscles and bones.

What do Rheumatologists Treat?

Rheumatologists treat arthritis, certain immune system diseases and osteoporosis. There are more than 100 types of these diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, back pain, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia and tendonitis. Some of these are very serious diseases that can be difficult to diagnose and treat.

Because some rheumatic diseases are complex, one visit to a rheumatologist may not be enough to determine a diagnosis and course of treatment. These diseases often change or evolve over time. Rheumatologists work closely with patients to identify the problem and design an individualized treatment program.

Orthopaedic Surgeon

An orthopaedic surgeon is a physician who specializes in joint replacement surgery and is sometimes referred to as an orthopaedist. Orthopaedists, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of problems involving:

  • muscles
  • bones
  • joints
  • ligaments
  • tendons
  • nerves

Many orthopaedic surgeons practice general orthopaedics, while others specialize in treating certain areas of the body, such as the foot, hand, shoulder, spine, hip or knee. Still others may specialize in pediatrics, trauma or sports medicine. Orthopaedists may collaborate with other specialists, such as neurosurgeons or rheumatologists, in caring for patients. Many orthopaedic surgeons are treating their patients using non-surgical methods.


Another specialist that treats pain in the muscles and joints is a physiatrist (fizz-ee-at'-trist). A physiatrist is a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Physiatrists treat a wide range of problems, from sore shoulders to spinal cord injuries. They see patients in all age groups and treat problems that touch upon all the major systems in the body.

What Do They Treat?

Physiatrists treat acute and chronic pain. They may treat a person who lifts a heavy object at work and experiences back pain, a basketball player who sprains an ankle and needs rehabilitation to play again, or a knitter who has carpal tunnel syndrome. Physiatrists' patients include people with arthritis, tendonitis, any kind of back pain, and work- or sports-related injuries.

Certified Occupational Therapists

The occupational therapist is a trained and licensed health-care professional who can evaluate the effect of arthritis on the activities of the patient at home and at work. The therapist considers lifestyle factors, occupational considerations, hobbies and recreational activities when making the assessment.

Physical Therapists

A physical therapist conducts in-depth evaluations of patients referred for therapy. The therapist develops individual treatment plans and administers physical therapy treatments designed to help establish or restore physical function, relieve pain, and maximize the abilities of the patient.

Tips for Finding a Specialist

The first and most important step is to talk to your primary-care physician. He or she will know physicians in your area and will have experience referring other patients to specialists. Other helpful steps to consider:

  • Talk to your friends. For common conditions such as arthritis, you may have co-workers, friends, or family who know local specialists and have first-hand experience.
  • Check the physician's credentials with the American Medical Association by visiting their web site at The AMA Physician Select "Doctor Finder" provides basic professional information on virtually every licensed physician in the United States, including more than 690,000 doctors of medicine (MD) and doctors of osteopathy or osteopathic medicine (DO).
  • Check the Directory of Physicians in the United States, published by the American Medical Association, which can be found in most large libraries or can be ordered by calling 800-621-8335

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