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Seeing a Joint Doctor

When to see a joint pain specialist, who to see and what to expect.

It's normal to have minor joint pain from time to time. Whether it's an achy knee, a sore shoulder or some other nagging body part, most of the time the pain goes away on its own or gets better after a day of rest, ice and elevation. But sometimes, joint pain hangs around. And that usually means a trip to the doctor's office.

When to See a Doctor
"If the joint pain is severe, if it doesn't go away after five or six days, if it's recurrent, or if the joint locks, catches or gives way—those are all signs you should see your doctor," says physiatrist Grant Cooper, MD, and co-director of the Princeton Spine and Joint Center in Princeton, N.J.

You should also see a doctor if you have a fever, chills or night sweats, or if the joint is red, hot or very swollen. These are signs that you might have an infection that requires urgent treatment, Dr. Cooper adds.

But even if you have relatively mild join pain that comes and goes, seeing a doctor sooner rather than later is a good idea. "One of the reasons to do this is not so much to make the pain go away, but to keep it from recurring," Dr. Cooper says.

For example, osteoarthritis of the knee can start off with mild achiness that comes and goes. "That cycle will repeat itself many times before the pain gets really bad," says Cooper. "But if you take the first pain as a warning sign and get diagnosed early and get involved with the right kinds of exercises, then you very well may be able to save yourself future grief and problems with your knee. This is true of all your joints."

Who to See
Several types of healthcare professionals are qualified to diagnose and treat joint pain. You may want to start with your family physician or internal medicine doc, who may be comfortable treating your initial pain and referring you to physical therapy, if it's needed.

Other doctors who treat joint pain include:

  • Rheumatologists, who specialize in joint diseases, like arthritis
  • Orthopedists, who specialize in surgical treatments
  • Physiatrists (rehabilitation physicians), who specialize in non-surgical treatments

What to Expect
When you see a joint pain specialist, the doctor will ask about your full medical history, including your current pain problem. The doctor will also conduct a physical exam to see how your joint moves, but the information you provide is sometimes even more telling. Cooper says most joint pain specialists will ask you the following:

  • When and how did the pain start?
  • What makes the pain better or worse?
  • What have you tried so far to make the pain go away?
  • How severe is the pain?
  • Does the joint feel like it locks, catches or gives way?

Your appointment will be more productive if you're prepared for those questions. Consider writing down your answers and bringing the notes with you.

Before you leave the office, you should expect to have a detailed conversion with your doctor about any recommended tests or treatments, which may include exercise or medication.