The diagnosis of osteoarthritis begins with a medical history, or information about your health background. Because certain conditions can be inherited, your doctor will ask which conditions run in your family. Your doctor will also want to find out about the symptoms that prompted you to seek medical attention.
Information your doctor may need to help diagnose osteoarthritis includes:
• a description of your symptoms
• details about when and how the pain or other symptoms began
• where you are feeling pain, stiffness or other symptoms
• how the symptoms are affecting you
• whether you have other medical problems that could be causing these symptoms
The next important part of the diagnostic process is the physical exam. During the exam your doctor will look at your joints and touch those you’ve described as painful. He or she will be looking for areas that are tender, painful or swollen as well as indications that the joints may be damaged.
To find out how arthritis is affecting your body, your doctor may ask you to stand up and move certain joints. This will show the range of motion in your joints or how well you can move each joint through its full capabilities. The doctor will examine the position and alignment of your neck and spine. He or she may ask you to walk around the office a bit to see how you are able to move your hips and knees.
The final part of the diagnosis of osteoarthritis may involve laboratory tests to confirm the diagnosis your doctor suspects based on your medical history and physical exam. Blood tests are usually not helpful in making a diagnosis; however, the following tests may help confirm a diagnosis of osteoarthritis:
Joint aspiration: For this laboratory test, your doctor will administer a local anesthetic, then insert a needle into the joint in order to withdraw fluid. The fluid is then examined for evidence of crystals or joint deterioration. This test can help rule out other medical conditions or other forms of arthritis.
X-ray: Imaging techniques like X-rays can show the physical effects of osteoarthritis to confirm the diagnosis. X-rays use radiation to penetrate the body’s soft tissues and show internal structures like bones. The images can show damage and other changes in cartilage and bones that can occur with osteoarthritis.
MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetic fields to produce an image of a specific area of the body. The test is more expensive than X-rays, but it does not involve the radiation risk of X-rays. And MRIs provide a two-dimensional view that offers better images of soft tissues, as cartilage, to detect early abnormalities typical of osteoarthritis.
When Should I See a Doctor?
Most people have some joint aches and pains as they age, and often pain can be managed with over-the-counter medications and self-care techniques such as warm baths and cold packs, massaging the affected joint or resting it when pain is at its worst. But if self-care techniques don’t sufficiently relieve your pain, a doctor may be able to prescribe other medications or treatments that will help.
It’s also important to see your doctor if you experience symptoms that might indicate your joint pain is not from osteoarthritis but a problem that requires more immediate medical attention. These symptoms include:
• Sudden swelling, warmth, redness along with pain in any joint(s).
• Joint pain accompanied by a fever and/or rash
• Severe pain that prevents you from using the joint