Everyone has aches and pains sometimes, especially as we age. These pains usually resolve themselves, but sometimes they are signs of a more serious immune problem. If you also experience other symptoms like joint swelling, fever, or skin rashes, your primary care physician may refer you to see a rheumatologist. A rheumatologist is well trained to recognize and treat many rheumatic diseases or problems with the immune system.

What Is a Rheumatologist?

A rheumatologist is a specialist who deals with soft tissue, joints, vasculitis (inflammation of small blood vessels), connective tissue, and autoimmune disorders. The most current medical knowledge suggests that these diseases are related to immunology, the study of the immune system.

Reasons to See a Rheumatologist

A rheumatologist can diagnose and treat many conditions, including more common conditions, such as back pain and arthritis, and up to more serious diseases, such as lupus and scleroderma. Some types of recurrent pain can require diagnosis and treatment by a rheumatologist. Rheumatic or autoimmune diseases tend to run in families, so you should get an earlier referral if you have a family history of these diseases. Some of the symptoms that should be evaluated by a rheumatologist include the following:

Pregnant women with specific illnesses need to be under the observation of a rheumatologist. Symptoms that don't go away or that have gotten worse over time can warrant a visit to a rheumatologist. Many rheumatic diseases continue to cause symptoms and do not usually go away on their own.

What Does a Rheumatologist Do?

Rheumatic diseases can be difficult to diagnose. Once diagnosed, they can also be challenging to manage, since the nature of many such diseases changes over time. Seeing a rheumatologist may feel similar to visiting your family physician, but your exam will be less general and more targeted. Some common parts of visiting a rheumatologist include the following:

  • Review of previous medical records
  • Laboratory blood tests, including antinuclear antibodies (ANA), rheumatoid factor (RF), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)
  • Ultrasound
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Expect to receive suggestions about how to reduce and manage your symptoms. Rheumatologists may prescribe the use of over-the-counter or prescription medications, depending on the specific cause of your illness. If your disease is autoimmune in nature, new medications called biologics might reduce the severity of occurrence of your symptoms. You may also receive suggestions about specific diet plans to follow, including foods to avoid.

How Is a Rheumatologist Certified?

Rheumatologists have at least 10 years of training. That includes four years of medical school, three years of training in internal medicine, and a fellowship of three years in rheumatology. Following the 10 years of training, doctors can then take the exam to become board-certified in rheumatology. This certification exam must be updated every ten years, ensuring that your doctor keeps up with the most current knowledge in the field.

You want to be a well-informed patient, so it's a good idea to look into the background and qualifications of your rheumatologist. Most hospitals have searchable databases with information about their doctors. You can also get information from state medical boards. You can even find more information about your doctor, including where they went to school and how long they have been practicing medicine, simply by typing their name into an online search.

Referral and Research

You are the best advocate for your own health. If you have concerns about ongoing pain or chronic poor health, you should speak with your primary care provider. They may decide that you should see a rheumatologist and refer you to a particular individual. You may be encouraged to search for your own rheumatologist to find the right fit that works with your health insurance. If you want to learn more, do an online search for rheumatologists in your area. You can find more information about the doctor, including any history of malpractice claims.

First Meeting With Your Rheumatologist

Come prepared with any questions that you have and don't be afraid to ask them. Rheumatologists are specialists who understand that you may not know everything there is to know about your health condition. Write down your questions in advance so that you're less likely to forget them. Some questions you may want to ask include the following:

  • What lifestyle changes can I make to manage my symptoms?
  • What is the expected course of illness for this disease?
  • What symptoms are normal for this condition?
  • Are there any specific precautions I should take?
  • When should I call 911?

During your appointment, make sure to find out about who you should call if you have questions or concerns after you leave the office. Managing a chronic illness can be overwhelming at times, and it's normal if you need more help.

If you feel that you may want a second opinion or the first rheumatologist you saw was not a good fit, it's okay to seek a new provider. You want to build a relationship with a doctor you can trust.