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Treating arthritis and other autoimmune diseases

Rheumatology is a subspecialty of internal medicine. Rheumatologists are experts in the diagnosis, treatment and medical management of patients with various arthritis and systemic autoimmune/rheumatic diseases.

When should a patient see a rheumatologist?

Patients with painful, red, swollen or warm joints, or musculoskeletal pain that is severe or lasts more than a few days, should consider seeking referral to a rheumatologist for screening. According to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), a rheumatologist is specially trained to find rheumatic diseases in the early stage, when some problems respond best to treatment. Correct diagnosis and early treatment is critical to prevent joint damage, for example.

Because some rheumatic diseases are complex, serious, and can be hard to diagnose and treat, one visit to a rheumatologist may not be enough to get a diagnosis and treatment plan. These diseases tend to be chronic and often change over time. They may get worse, or they may go into remission and return after some time. Rheumatologists work closely with patients over time to find the problem and design a treatment plan.

The key is to catch conditions early. Diagnosis is based primarily on a physical exam and labs.

What does a rheumatologist do?

According to the ACR, the rheumatologist assesses:

  • Signs and symptoms, including systemic involvement
  • Joint disorders
  • Overall function, including physical, mental well-being and level of independence
  • Results of advanced imaging and lab tests
  • Treatment options
  • Need for more assessment and treatment, such as:
    • referrals to other healthcare providers
    • orthopedic aids or corrective surgery
    • hospital stay

Proper analysis of a patient’s medical history, physical examination and tests, combined with accurate diagnosis and specially tailored treatment results in improved patient outcomes, better quality care and is often less costly.

Rheumatology treatments

Rheumatologists treat arthritis, certain autoimmune and musculoskeletal diseases, and osteoporosis.

Ascension Medical Group Rheumatology department features five board-certified, fellowship-trained physicians who commonly see and treat:

  • Arthritic illnesses such as: rheumatoid arthritis; psoriatic arthritis; reactive arthritis; ankylosing spondylitis and other spondyloarthropathies; crystal diseases such as gout and pseudogout
  • Systemic rheumatic diseases including: lupus; Sjögren’s syndrome; scleroderma; polymyositis; dermatomyositis; sarcoidosis; temporal arteritis; Wegener's granulomatosis and other vasculitis
  • Bone disorders: osteopenia (low bone mass); osteoporosis


Striking one of every five adults — over 46 million people — and affecting all genders, ages and races, arthritis is the nation’s leading cause of disability, according to the Arthritis Foundation. With more than 100 types, arthritis costs $128 billion annually in medical care and other costs.

An often misunderstood disease surrounded by myths, arthritis can rob patients of their quality of life. It’s important to understand the benefits of partnering with rheumatologists in patient care.

Patients should be seen by a rheumatologist as soon as the diagnosis of inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, is considered. Once damage to the joints has occurred, it is rarely possible to reverse. 

Rheumatoid arthritis treatment

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the soft tissue lining of joints. Treatment focuses on controlling joint pain and swelling and preventing joint damage.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids help reduce pain and swelling quickly. Disease modifying drugs and biologics are targeted therapies that help prevent joint destruction.

Osteoarthritis treatment

Osteoarthritis (OA) is not an autoimmune disease. It’s the result of wear and tear of the joint causing cartilage to become damaged. OA is managed through the following: maintaining ideal body weight; exercise to strengthen muscles around the joints; physical therapy; joint injections; and topical and oral medications to help relieve pain.

Osteoporosis treatment

With osteoporosis, treatment involves identifying risk factors for bone loss and correcting them. A rheumatologist may recommend: engaging in regular, weight-bearing exercise; taking daily calcium and vitamin D supplements or dietary measures; or taking medications to help prevent bone loss or help new bone formation.

Evaluation by your primary care physician can help determine if referral to a rheumatologist is right for you.