“Arthritis” is a general term for a group of related conditions that cause joint inflammation. Doctors typically use a variety of assessment tools to diagnose arthritis, including a review of symptoms, imaging, and other tests.

Arthritis affects about 58.5 million adults in the United States, which equates to about 1 in 4 people. Children can also develop arthritis.

The most common type is osteoarthritis. Other common forms in the United States include rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and fibromyalgia. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis is the most common type of arthritis among children.

To diagnose arthritis, a doctor typically uses a variety of methods to assess whether a person has the condition and, if so, what type. Diagnosis may involve a physical examination, review of medical history, imaging tests, and other tests.

This article reviews the different methods a doctor may use to diagnose arthritis, treatments for arthritis, and when to talk with a doctor.

Arthritis resources

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for arthritis, visit our dedicated hub.

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A doctor will likely start the diagnostic process by performing a physical examination. This may include:

A healthcare professional will also take a closer look at the affected joint. They may look for swelling and discolored skin around the joint. They may also check the mobility and flexibility of the joint.

Additionally, they may check the person’s spine for unusual curving and range of motion if the person experiences back pain.

Learn more about the anatomy of the back here.

Before or during the physical examination, a doctor will ask a person questions about their symptoms, lifestyle habits, and personal and family medical history. These questions can help the doctor determine what the underlying cause of the joint pain may be.

A doctor will likely ask several questions about a person’s symptoms. The answers may help determine what type of arthritis a person has. Some questions may include:

  • When did symptoms start?
  • Do they improve with rest or with movement?
  • Do they come on gradually or start suddenly?
  • Did they start following travel? If so, where was the geographical area?
  • Which joints are affected?
  • Is there swelling or any other symptoms along with the pain?
  • When do symptoms occur: in the morning, evening, or throughout the day?
  • Does anything provide relief from the pain?

A review of family medical history can help provide insight into whether close relatives have had:

They will also ask about personal medical history, which may include questions about general health, occupational history, and lifestyle habits.

Reviewing medical information can help a doctor rule out possible causes and better determine the type of arthritis a person may have.

Answers to these questions alone typically do not provide enough information for a doctor to diagnose a specific condition. Conforming a diagnosis may also require additional testing.

Doctors use imaging tests to get a closer look at affected joints. These tests can show potential damage to the joint as well as inflammation and other signs of joint distress.

The most common imaging test healthcare professionals use to diagnose arthritis is an X-ray. A doctor may also use an MRI or ultrasound scan, particularly when looking for early signs of rheumatoid arthritis.

Other possible imaging tests include:

Learn more about what arthritis looks like on an MRI here.

In addition to imaging tests, a doctor may order other tests to help get a better idea of what type of arthritis a person has or check for signs of an underlying condition.

A healthcare professional may order blood tests to help rule out other underlying causes. Tests can include a complete blood count and tests to detect specific chemicals and substances in the blood that may suggest different underlying causes of joint pain.

If a doctor suspects rheumatoid arthritis, they may check for rheumatoid factor. This is an antibody present in many people with the condition. However, its presence alone is not enough to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis since not everyone has it, and some people who do will never develop the condition.

A doctor may also check for anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide antibodies and inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive proteins.

In some cases, a doctor may drain some fluid from the joint. They can then check the fluid in a lab for signs of gout or infection.

Arthritis treatments may vary slightly depending on the type of arthritis a person has.

In all cases, a doctor’s goal in treatment is to:

  • manage pain and other symptoms
  • maintain or improve joint function
  • improve quality of life
  • prevent further joint damage

For osteoarthritis, treatment may involve:

Inflammatory forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis, typically require treatment that controls inflammation. These conditions may cause issues in other areas of the body beyond the joints.

Lifestyle strategies may also help manage arthritis symptoms. A person may benefit from:

“Arthritis” is an umbrella term covering various conditions that can cause joint damage, pain, and swelling. Some forms, such as rheumatoid arthritis, involve inflammation that can affect several body parts.

A person can visit a healthcare professional who can provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend appropriate treatment. The correct treatment can improve symptoms and help prevent further complications from arthritis.

In some cases, a doctor may refer someone to a rheumatologist. This is a healthcare professional who specializes in inflammatory conditions that affect the joints. They can order further diagnostic tests and treatments.

Doctors use several tools to help assess whether a person has arthritis and what type they may have. Assessment tools include physical examinations, medical history reviews, imaging tests, and other tests to help determine the underlying cause of the pain and stiffness.

Once a doctor confirms a diagnosis, they can provide the right treatment for the arthritis. They may recommend treatments to address inflammation, manage symptoms, and prevent complications. A doctor may also recommend lifestyle strategies, including diet changes, exercise, and weight management.