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Diagnosing arthritis

Close up of one hand kneading the other

Early diagnosis and treatment of arthritis can help increase your chances of living a full and active life.

Aches and pains in your joints can affect you in many ways. Maybe your wrist feels sore when you try to open a jar. Perhaps your back stiffens up in the morning when you get out of bed. Or maybe that knee you injured playing softball years ago hurts again for no apparent reason.

These aches and pains can have a variety of causes, including arthritis. Whatever the cause, the first step toward relief is to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis. If you do have arthritis, treatment can help ease your symptoms and get you back to your regular activities.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a disorder that causes joints in your body—such as the hips, knees, feet, fingers and lower back—to become inflamed.

There are more than 100 types of arthritis and associated conditions. The most common form is osteoarthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Known as wear and tear arthritis, it occurs when cartilage in the joints breaks down.

Another form, called rheumatoid arthritis, occurs when the body's immune system attacks the joints.

Symptoms of arthritis vary depending on the type of disorder you have, but common symptoms include pain, aching, stiffness, and swelling in and around your joints. If you have these symptoms on an ongoing basis, see a doctor for diagnosis.

While arthritis can be painful and potentially debilitating, you can live a normal life with it if your disorder is properly diagnosed and treated.

Steps to a diagnosis

There's no one test that can diagnose arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis, in particular, can be difficult to diagnose because it may begin with small signs, like aching joints or a little stiffness in the morning, that are also commonly associated with many other diseases. It may be necessary to see a doctor who is specially trained to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, such as a rheumatologist.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, if your doctor suspects you have arthritis, he or she may use one or more of the following tools to help make a diagnosis:

  • Your medical history. Along with discussing your symptoms, your doctor will probably ask about your health background; any diseases, allergies or conditions you currently have; and medical procedures you have undergone in the past.
  • A physical exam. Your doctor will look for common signs of arthritis, such as swelling and tenderness; loss of motion; and damage caused by bony growths in and around the joint.
  • Lab tests. If your doctor suspects arthritis based on your symptoms and a physical exam, he or she may order lab tests to confirm the diagnosis. Most lab tests for arthritis involve samples of your blood, because it is easily and safely obtained and holds many clues to what's going on throughout your body. For example, blood tests can show if you have an antibody called anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP)—a sign of rheumatoid arthritis. Other tests may require samples of your urine, joint fluid, or small pieces of skin or muscle.
  • X-rays. These tests can highlight damage or other changes to cartilage and bone that indicate you may have arthritis. X-rays can also be helpful in determining the severity of arthritis and if the disease is progressing.

Learn more

To learn more about osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and other forms of the disease, talk to your doctor or visit the Arthritis health topic center.

Reviewed 4/17/2024

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