Painful joints associated with rheumatoid arthritis or the chronic muscle pain of fibromyalgia or other autoimmune and rheumatoid diseases seriously affect the daily lives and activities of millions of people.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 54.4 million Americans have been diagnosed with a rheumatoid or autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, or fibromyalgia. While most people will experience some joint or muscle aches from time-to-time which are usually not serious, when a person is affected with the chronic musculoskeletal pain associated with rheumatoid or autoimmune diseases, then it is time to see a rheumatologist.
If you have symptoms or a disease related to the musculoskeletal system, finding a trustworthy, experienced rheumatologist is likely on the top of your list. However, even though many great doctors exist, not every rheumatologist will be the right fit for you.
Our goal here at MediFind is to give you more confidence in your health decisions, especially when settling on the right doctor. That’s why we created this guide—to empower you with the information you need to make the right decisions when choosing and working with a good rheumatologist. (Note: if you are currently experiencing new or serious symptoms you think may be related to a musculoskeletal disease, call your doctor, visit your local emergency room, or call 911).
Your rheumatologist will likely be a part of your life for some time, so connecting with a physician you can trust is vital. Later on, in this guide, we will discuss finding the right rheumatologist who can treat your specific condition.
But first, let’s cover what the musculoskeletal system is, what a rheumatologist does, and what to expect when you walk into a rheumatologist’s office.
- What is the Musculoskeletal System?
- What is a Rheumatologist?
- What Does a Rheumatologist Do?
- What Can a Rheumatologist Diagnose?
- Why Would You Be Referred to a Rheumatologist?
- How Do I Find a Rheumatologist Who Takes My Insurance?
- When Should I Travel to See a Rheumatology Expert?
- What to Expect at Your Rheumatologist Visit
- How to Find a Good Rheumatologist
What is the Musculoskeletal System?
The musculoskeletal system provides the support for the body, while allowing for motion and protecting vital organs.
The musculoskeletal system includes:
- Connective tissue
What is a Rheumatologist?
Rheumatologists are experts in rheumatic and autoimmune diseases, a group of disorders that affect the joints, ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles. Rheumatic diseases are also sometimes called musculoskeletal diseases. Common rheumatic diseases include osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and fibromyalgia. Autoimmune diseases are caused by a person’s own immune system attacking areas of the body. The reason for this is unknown. Common autoimmune diseases include lupus and psoriasis.
Your primary care physician may refer you to a rheumatologist if they feel you need more specialized attention for your musculoskeletal or autoimmune disorder-related symptoms. These symptoms usually include persistent swollen, stiff, or painful joints or muscles or symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases, such as red, scaly skin plaques, among others.
What Does a Rheumatologist Do?
Rheumatologists specialize in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal, which are a group of disorders characterized by conditions such as chronic pain and inflammation, stiffness, weakness, decreased range of motion, noises in joints, swelling, warmth, tenderness, reddened skin, and impaired function.
Many of these disorders are autoimmune conditions, meaning that the immune system is attacking itself and causing these symptoms. The reasons for this are not fully understood, but rheumatologists are trained to help figure out if these symptoms are caused by an autoimmune disorder as opposed to an injury or other issue.
Rheumatologists generally treat diseases with medications and may prescribe physical therapy and lifestyle changes. If surgery is needed, they may refer you to an orthopedic surgeon.
What is a Pediatric Rheumatologist?
A pediatric rheumatologist is an expert in rheumatic diseases in children. Pediatric rheumatologists often see children who are affected by arthritis, autoimmune disorders, such as juvenile idiopathic arthritis, Kawasaki disease, or scleroderma, and unexplained symptoms, such as inflammation, musculoskeletal pain, weakness, joint swelling, or rash.
What can a Rheumatologist Diagnose?
Rheumatologists diagnose and treat rheumatic diseases, which are disorders that affect the joints, ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles.
Some of the most common conditions treated by rheumatologists include:
- Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS)
- Axial Spondyloarthritis (axSpA)
- Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
- Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, or SLE)
- Lupus Nephritis
- Lyme Disease
- Osteoarthritis (OA)
- Psoriatic Arthritis (PsA)
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
- Sjogren Syndrome
Why Would You Be Referred to a Rheumatologist?
Almost everyone will experience some occasional muscle or joint aches now and then. However, if your symptoms regularly recur, do not resolve, or are causing distress, you should first see your primary care physician. They may refer you to a rheumatologist for further evaluation to determine what may be the cause and its treatment.
Once you have a referral to see a rheumatologist, it is important to see them as soon as possible, so they can treat any potentially serious conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma, to manage the condition and prevent complications.
Why Would You Need to See a Rheumatologist?
If you experience any of the symptoms listed below, you should first call your primary care physician who may refer you to a rheumatologist.
- Muscle or joint pain, and/or swelling or stiffness that does not fully resolve
- Rashes, including butterfly rash on face
- Blue or white fingers or toes
- Nodules around joints, such as wrist and ankles
- Pain and stiffness in spine or neck
- Scaly, red patches on skin (psoriatic plaques)
- Pain and swelling in big toe
Note that in this article, we are discussing musculoskeletal and autoimmune issues that might or might not require emergency assistance. However, if you have any of the symptoms listed below, call 911 and/or visit an Emergency Room immediately:
- Infected arthritic joints
- Gout attack
- Dysfunction of neck joints
- Kidney pain
- Finger ulcers
- Loss of blood flow to extremities
- Temporary loss of vision in one eye
- Severe infection
Lifestyle Habits and Pre-existing Conditions that Affect Rheumatic Health
Certain lifestyle habits, medical history, or pre-existing conditions also put you at greater risk of developing rheumatological and autoimmune diseases. If any of the below apply to you, you should consider visiting a rheumatologist:
- Family history of rheumatological or autoimmune disease
- History of serious infection
- History of tick bite
- High blood pressure
- Early menopause
- Kidney disease
- Pre-existing rheumatic diseases
How Do I Find a Rheumatologist Who Takes My Insurance?
With the high cost of medical care, it’s especially important to know whether a particular rheumatologist accepts your private medical insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid. While you can choose to be treated by a rheumatologist who doesn’t accept your insurance, it’s important to understand how much you will have to pay out of pocket. MediFind always recommends calling the rheumatologist’s office to confirm their acceptance of your insurance and to discuss possible costs and payment arrangements.
When Should I Travel to See a Rheumatology Expert?
If you have a rare rheumatic condition, then it is less likely that there will be an expert nearby, even if you live in a large metropolitan area. While the decision to travel to see a rheumatology expert is not easy and can be an additional burden, you may want to consider traveling to see an expert to be certain you are getting the best treatment.
What to Expect at Your Rheumatologist Visit
While it is natural to feel apprehensive when going to the doctor, we hope to put you at ease by outlining what you can expect when you visit a rheumatologist. Below, we also provide you with some tips on how to get the most out of your visit by preparing a list of questions to ask your doctor.
Advice for First-Timers Visiting a Rheumatologist
If this is the first time you are seeing a rheumatologist, here are some tips to help you have a successful visit:
Bring your list of concerns (or reasons for your visit) with you on a piece of paper or your phone, so you can easily recall them when speaking to your rheumatologist. (Later, in this article, we will supply you with a list of questions to ask your doctor.)
Bring a friend or loved one for support, so you can recall the information after your visit. You may be nervous, which will make it more difficult to remember what the rheumatologist said. Bring a notebook as well, so you can take notes.
Be honest and don’t hold anything back. Your rheumatologist can only help you with the information you give them. Understanding the full picture will give your rheumatologist more to work with and help them to provide you with the best care.
Before Your Rheumatology Appointment
Prepare for your appointment by gathering the following items:
- Copies of medical records (dating back at least one year)
- List of surgeries you have had
- List of current medications, including dosages
- Allergies to medications or other allergies, such as to food, dust, or pollen
- Any alternative therapies/vitamins/herbal supplements, including dosages
- List of symptoms and details about how long they last and how often (it’s advisable to write them down beforehand as it’s easy to forget when you are at your appointment)
- Stressful work or life events that may be affecting your health
- Family history of disease
- Name and contact information of pharmacy
- List of questions (see next section)
During Your Rheumatology Appointment
What can you expect during your appointment? First, it is best to leave early for your appointment in case you have difficulty finding the doctor’s office. You should also show up at least 15 minutes prior to your appointment to fill out paperwork.
Your rheumatology visit may include a review of your medical history, a physical exam, and an evaluation of symptoms. Your rheumatologist may also send you for additional testing to confirm or rule out a diagnosis. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you or possibly refer you to another specialist or subspecialist if you need additional care. For example, if you need a surgical procedure, your rheumatologist may refer you to an orthopedic surgeon.
You should tell your rheumatologist about any pain, stiffness, swelling, or immobility in your joints, ligaments, tendons, bones, or muscles. You should also be prepared to discuss your family history, since many autoimmune disorders that cause these symptoms tend to run in families. The rheumatologist may also ask you about recent travels or your living situation, since some diseases are associated with environmental factors (such as Lyme disease, which is transmitted by ticks).
Your rheumatologist may also need more information before creating a treatment plan. They may recommend any or all of the following, and ask you to come back for a follow-up appointment:
- Blood tests
- Imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
- Testing some fluid from a joint affected by your symptoms
This visit will also include a time to discuss your concerns with your doctor. Feel free to ask your questions. Good doctors want to ease your worries and ensure that you fully understand your diagnosis, what to expect, and the treatment options. Your time with the doctor, however, may be limited, so be certain to prepare your questions beforehand, placing the highest priority questions at the top of the list.
Below is a list of questions to consider asking your rheumatologist. The questions you ask your doctor will, of course, depend on your unique medical situation, so we included a list of questions connected to different scenarios. Choose the questions that make the most sense for your situation.
List of Questions to Ask at Your Rheumatologist Visit
- What is my diagnosis?
- What is the condition I have?
- What is my prognosis?
- Are there any risks or complications associated with my condition?
- Do I need additional testing?
- Why do you want these tests?
- Are there any risks or complications associated with these tests?
- What is involved with this test? (outpatient, duration, preparation, etc.)
- When will I find out the test results?
Treatments / medication / procedures
- What treatments are available?
- Are there any risks or complications involved with this treatment?
- Why do I need this treatment?
- What are the benefits of each treatment?
- Are there any alternatives to this treatment?
- How effective is this treatment?
- Are there any side effects of this medication?
- Does this medication interact with anything?
- Will I have to take this medication for life?
- How long will this procedure take?
- How do I need to prepare for the procedure?
- Is the procedure outpatient, or will I need to stay in the hospital?
- Who will be performing the procedure?
- Do I need to make lifestyle changes?
- Will lifestyle changes improve my condition or alleviate my symptoms?
- When should I follow-up with another visit?
- Should I get a second opinion?
After the Appointment: Getting a Second Opinion
Suppose you are happy with your rheumatologist and got your questions answered. In that case, you can schedule a follow-up appointment as well as follow the doctor’s recommendations concerning treatment, medications, or additional testing, and so on.
However, if you are unhappy with or uncertain about your diagnosis and want a different perspective on your condition or treatments, it’s okay to get a second opinion. There are many wonderful rheumatologists, but not every physician may be the right fit for you. The doctor-patient relationship is an important one, with communication being an essential factor. If you have a hard time communicating with your rheumatologist or do not feel comfortable, it might be time to look for another physician.
Since even the top rheumatologists can have different opinions, you should always try to get a second opinion from another expert before making treatment decisions. Ideally, you want to get a second opinion from an expert who can provide you with an alternative point-of-view, so you can make an informed choice that best fits your condition and its treatment.
Medical errors are rare, but they do happen because doctors are fallible like everyone else. The BMJ Quality & Safety Healthcare Journal published a study on diagnostic errors. It estimated that approximately 12 million adults in the U.S. are misdiagnosed every year, and half of these misdiagnoses could potentially be harmful. Getting a second opinion can assure you that you are making the best health decisions and receiving the quality of care you deserve.
If you want to find a rheumatologist who can give you a quality second opinion, visit MediFind’s Second Opinion Finder.
How to Find a Good Rheumatologist
Finding a rheumatologist who is the right fit can be a confusing and complicated process. However, with the right tools, you can find an expert you can feel comfortable with and get the care you want and deserve.
Typically, your primary care physician will refer you to a rheumatologist. But that doesn’t mean you need to see that specific doctor from the referral. Later, in this section, we will show you how you can easily search for top rheumatologists.
Your friends and family members may also refer you to a good rheumatologist. However, beware—though well-meaning, your loved ones might not know which rheumatologist has expertise in your specific condition. We will cover why this is important later in this section.
Beware of online doctor reviews as well. While they might help you evaluate things such as staff friendliness and office aesthetics, they do not give you the full picture of a doctor’s expertise.
The American College of Rheumatology recommends researching a doctor’s credentials and confirming they are board-certified before booking an appointment. Search the following websites for a rheumatologist’s certifications and specialties.
These databases do not dive into specifics on a physician’s expertise, however. While they list the doctor’s board certifications, they do not provide information on their expertise in specific musculoskeletal and autoimmune conditions, their current and past research, their clinical trials, or their connectedness to other doctors in their field.
Find the Best Rheumatologists Quickly
MediFind was created to help health consumers quickly and easily find the best care and pathways to the right treatments.
MediFind is different from other doctor-finder databases because it doesn’t evaluate physicians based on online reviews, which can be biased, unreliable, and even fake. While marginally helpful for assessing the doctor’s office staff’s friendliness or typical wait times, online reviews do not give you the full picture of a doctor’s expertise. In contrast, MediFind catalogs physicians who focus on the treatment and care of one or a few conditions. These doctors are likely to offer additional perspectives and insights into your care and treatment than more generalized doctors.
MediFind evaluates physicians according to:
- Connectedness with other physicians who are experts in the treatment and pathology of a particular disease or condition
- Published papers or research about this condition
- Experience in treating patients with this condition
- Number of patients referred from other specialists who treat this condition
MediFind also offers a suite of tools and current research to help beyond just finding a great doctor:
- Find a Doctor –MediFind’s database includes over 2.5 million doctors from around the world that allows you to search by condition, specialty, or name.
- Symptom Checker – Research your symptoms and identify possible causes that you can discuss with your doctor.
- Second Opinion Finder – Find doctors who can give you a quality second opinion.
- Research medical conditions, clinical trials, and the latest advances for your condition.
- Search through current objective medical data compiled in an easy-to-digest format.
How to Search for the Best Rheumatologists: Start Here
To search for rheumatologists in your area, visit MediFind’s Best Rheumatologists Near Me page and enter your location and radius. MediFind will return a list of rheumatologists within the set radius of your preferred location.
We encourage you to take your search a step further to see what makes MediFind superior to other tools. On the left side of the Rheumatologist search page, next to the doctor profiles, you will find a list of musculoskeletal and autoimmune conditions. Click on a condition to customize your search. If your musculoskeletal or autoimmune condition is not listed here, simply click on the search icon above this list and type in your condition to find rheumatologists who specialize in your specific condition.
This list is important because there is a lot of value in finding a rheumatologist with expertise in your specific musculoskeletal or autoimmune condition, as explained earlier.
Performing a custom search for a particular musculoskeletal or autoimmune condition returns a list of rheumatologists who are experts in that condition, ranked by MediFind’s expert tiers. Our expert tiers evaluate physicians based on the factors we listed above (connectedness, number of patients seen, referrals, and research), among other factors. Read more on how MediFind evaluates physicians. When you click on a doctor’s profile, you will also find more information about the condition along with its latest advances and clinical trials. The profile also includes the doctor’s credentials, research, and expertise in related conditions.
If you are unsure of your specific condition, use MediFind’s Symptom Checker to narrow your focus on a diagnosis so you can find the right rheumatologist. Note that the Symptom Checker is not a diagnostic tool. It merely helps you narrow down a condition to find the best specialists (who have expertise in that condition), so you can find the best rheumatologist and discuss your potential diagnosis with your doctor.
We’re On Your Side
The information MediFind offers you is not available in online reviews or other medical websites. However, it’s essential to have this information, so you can receive the highest quality of care.
When you are managing a complex or rare health condition, time is not always on your side. We created MediFind to help you find the best care as quickly as possible. We hope that we can alleviate some of the challenges associated with your journey to better health, while providing you with the means to access world-class doctors you can trust.