Many Americans suffer from musculoskeletal and systemic autoimmune diseases. A significant proportion of these patients exhibit signs and symptoms of common health conditions, such as osteoarthritis, which causes osteoporosis. Often the disorder results in chronic pains, especially in the joints.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 58.5 million American adults were diagnosed with a form of rheumatic disorder annually from 2013 to 2015. In 2015 alone, about 19.3% of adult Floridians were confirmed to have rheumatic disorders.
While other doctors may have the specialty medical skills and instruments to diagnose the more common forms of rheumatologic diseases, a rheumatologist specializes in the rarer cases of rheumatologic conditions.
This article provides an in-depth understanding of who a rheumatologist is, their impact on the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic disorders, the diseases they commonly treat, and the signs and symptoms that warrant the need to seek rheumatologic care.
What is a Rheumatologist?
A rheumatologist is an internal medicine physician specializing in diagnosing and treating the dysfunction and dysregulation of the immune system that results in the immune system attacking the body itself – a condition called autoimmune disease.
It usually affects the musculoskeletal system, particularly the joints, bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles.
Several common rheumatologic diseases include osteoarthritis, gout, lupus, and infectious arthritis.
These are conditions that many doctors have the needed medical skills and knowledge to treat.
On the other hand, there are rarer rheumatic or autoimmune disorders that other doctors can't readily diagnose and treat.
That's when a rheumatologist comes in. They can diagnose and identify the less common forms of autoimmune diseases that other specialties can't.
Subsequently, they provide complex medical treatments to improve patients' quality of life and alleviate autoimmune disease symptoms.
The only caveat is that there is a shortage of rheumatologists actively practicing in America.
As per MedScape data, there are about 5,600 rheumatologists in the US who are expected to care for the 50+ million people living with rheumatic conditions.
There's an urgent need to ensure more medical professionals get into the field to prevent the projected mismatch in demand and supply by 2030.
What are the reasons to visit a rheumatologist?
It would be best to understand what an autoimmune or rheumatic disease is to fully know the reasons or symptoms that would prompt you to see a rheumatologist.
What is an autoimmune disease?
An autoimmune disease is a disorder in which the immune system goes awry and mistakenly attacks the body, causing unnecessary inflammation in different parts of the musculoskeletal system.
It is that attack on the musculoskeletal system that results in pain around the joints, bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other body organs.
Usually, the immune system safeguards the body against disease-causing germs, bacteria, and viruses.
Once it detects these microorganisms in the body, it counter-attacks them by sending guard cells to fight these pathogens.
An autoimmune or rheumatic disease occurs when the immune system mistakes healthy cells for pathogens.
It then releases protein molecules called autoantibodies that attack these healthy cells. Some rheumatologic diseases affect one part of the body.
For instance, autoimmune-disease-induced Type 1 diabetes attacks the pancreas, while lupus affects the entire body.
Following diagnosis, autoimmune disease symptoms last for the rest of the patient's life, causing constant pain or intermittent painful episodes.
Treating them involves complex medications, which require the expertise of a rheumatologist.
Diagnosing these diseases involves sorting through big data to specifically detect patients with unusual lab tests and the underlying health conditions causing the abnormal findings.
That's why other physicians depend on rheumatologists' diagnostic abilities to help them identify the rarer causes of common osteoarthritis disorders and other chronic diseases.
Why see a rheumatologist?
Scheduling regular appointments with your rheumatologist provides both of you with an opportunity to monitor your health progress, identify trigger factors, and adjust treatment and medications.
Nonetheless, some symptoms may compel you to want to visit your rheumatologist urgently.
The following are reasons why you may want to see your doctor sooner rather than later:
Inflammation flares up
You may require an urgent office visit when your Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) causes inflammation flares.
That's critical because the experience not only results in excruciating pain but can also lead to long-term deformity and joint damage.
Seeking rheumatologic help enables the doctor to assess the flares and determine the best treatment approach.
There's a pain in a new location
Typically, RA attacks the joints, causing pain, redness, and swelling.
But immunity dysfunction can also strike other body parts, such as the eyes and mouth, causing them to dry and feel uncomfortable.
Some patients even experience RA-caused lung and heart conditions.
If you experience these problems, it would be best to visit a Riverview rheumatologist for medical examinations.
You've experienced a new symptom
RA patients can experience changes in symptoms signifying a change in their health status.
Normally, a new symptom unrelated to RA often suggests an underlying medical condition. An example is gout.
Doctors long thought that RA patients couldn't develop gout, but scientific studies confirmed that gout could lead to kidney stones.
That's why patients need to schedule appointments with their rheumatologists to identify the underlying cause of any new symptoms that don't relate to RA.
You're experiencing treatment side-effects
Rheumatologists prescribe common RA drugs, such as corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and recently discovered therapies called biologics.
While these medications help in RA treatments, they might cause side effects like stomach discomfort, edema, and heartburn.
On the other hand, NSAIDs can increase blood sugar and boost appetite leading to weight gain.
Such side effects detract a patient's positive response to treatment, lowering the quality of life. If you notice side effects from your RA treatment, contact your doctor immediately.
Do rheumatologists treat all forms of autoimmune diseases?
There are over 200 distinct rheumatologic conditions that attack the joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and connecting tissues.
As aforementioned, some autoimmune diseases advance to other body parts like the eyes, mouth, skin, nerves, and other internal organs.
Rheumatic diseases cause persistent symptoms, while others result in pain that comes and goes.
Some even have symptoms that mimic other health conditions. It makes the diagnostics pretty complex and challenging.
While rheumatologists have the medical expertise to diagnose and provide complex treatment regimens accurately, they only cater to patients with specific autoimmune diseases. These include:
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Reactive arthritis
- Inflammation myopathy
- Antiphospholipid syndrome
- Polymyalgia Rheumatica
Rheumatologists use different instruments and methods to determine the presence of excess antibodies causing autoimmune diseases.
They may perform one or a mix of the following diagnostic procedures:
- MRI scans
- CT scans
Rheumatologists don't treat all kinds of autoimmune diseases.
Therefore, if a patient suffers from autoimmune thyroid disease, a thyroid doctor or thyroidologist will take care of the treatment.
It's the same approach with autoimmune liver disease.
A liver doctor or hepatologist will take over the treatment, not a rheumatologist.
When should you see a rheumatologist?
Pain in the joints and muscles is a common symptom of rheumatic disease.
As we've mentioned earlier, if there are inflammation flares that cause extended periods of pain (lasting more than a few days), you should schedule an appointment with your rheumatologist.
A visit to the doctor enables them to examine whether the pain is a result of injury, inflammation, or an underlying rheumatic condition.
Perhaps the symptoms subsided during the initial stages of treatment, but they came back after treatment.
That's another solid reason to see your doctor.
Generally, you might want to visit a rheumatologist when you:
- Have pain in multiple joints
- Experience muscle pain
- Have pain in a new location that's unrelated to a known injury
- Experience joint or muscle pains that come with fever, morning stiffness, chest pains, or fatigue
- Are above 50 years and experience recurring muscle and headaches
Have you been experiencing musculoskeletal pains or painful episodes that you can't explain the cause?
Avoid guesswork by partnering with a professional Riverview Rheumatologist.
At Southwest Florida Rheumatology, we provide quality and safe diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases and allied health conditions with a high focus on the patient.
Schedule an appointment with one of our experienced rheumatologists by calling (813) 672-2243.