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Tests and Exams to Diagnose Joint Pain

Find out what to expect when you visit a healthcare provider about joint pain.

Tests and Exams to Diagnose Joint Pain

There are many different causes of joint pain. Some are common—osteoarthritis, which occurs due to a breakdown of cartilage in the joints, affects more than thirty million people in the United States. Other causes of joint pain are rare—for example, tenosynovial giant cell tumors (TGCTs), which are benign tumors in the tissues of the joints, may only affect a few thousand.

Because there are many potential causes, if you are experiencing joint pain, it is important to work with a healthcare provider to get a diagnosis. Here, we’ll look at the different exams that a healthcare provider may use when making a diagnosis, with a few tips that can help you have a more productive appointment.

Symptoms and history
Your appointment will likely start with questions and answers about your symptoms. Before your appointment, it can help to spend some time thinking about questions like:

  • What joints are affected?
  • Is the pain accompanied by stiffness or swelling?
  • When did the symptoms start?
  • Was the onset of symptoms sudden or gradual?
  • Has the pain stayed the same, or has it gotten worse?
  • Is the pain steady, or does it come and go? Does it get better or worse with activity?
  • Is the pain or stiffness worse in the morning when you wake up?
  • Are there any other symptoms that accompany the pain, such as fever, fatigue, or unexplained weight loss?
  • Have you traveled recently?
  • Have you spent time in wooded areas?
  • Have you had any injuries in the past?

Your healthcare provider will also ask questions about your lifestyle and medical history, as well as your family’s medical history. It is important for your healthcare provider to know about other health conditions that may be related to joint pain—psoriatic arthritis, for example, is a type of arthritis that affects people who have psoriasis, an inflammatory disorder that can manifest as a number of skin symptoms.

Family medical history is also important. If a family member has arthritis, you may be at an increased risk of having arthritis. If a family member has an autoimmune disease, you may be at an increased risk of having an autoimmune disease (though not necessarily the same autoimmune disease). Knowing the answers to questions about family medical history prior to your appointment can be helpful.

Lifestyle will be another topic of discussion. Your healthcare provider will need to know about your day-to-day activities, such as the physical demands of your job, any sports or types of exercise you participate in, if you smoke, how much alcohol you consume, and your eating habits.

Physical exam
During a physical exam, your healthcare provider will look at the range of motion of your joints, and will look for swelling, tenderness, stiffness, if the joint is warm to the touch, and if there are bumps, nodules, or protuberances that can be felt on the joint. Your healthcare provider will also look at your muscle strength, compare the length of your legs (if the joints in the lower body are affected), and look for signs or symptoms in other joints, as the pattern of the joints affected can be a distinguishing factor for different diseases.

Lab tests
Blood work is an important diagnostic tool, and can help a healthcare provider determine what is causing your joint pain. In some cases, a healthcare provider may also extract and examine fluid from the affected joint.

Imaging tests
Just as your healthcare provider will examine the exterior of your joints, they may need to have a look at the interior of your joints, and may order an imaging test such as X-rays or MRI.

Medically reviewed in June 2019.

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