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What symptoms of osteoarthritis do doctors look for?

If you have osteoarthritis symptoms—such as joint pain, and swelling and tenderness around the joint—seek medical attention. If you suspect you have osteoarthritis, it's important to talk with your healthcare provider about your symptoms. If you are diagnosed with osteoarthritis, it's important to explore the full range of treatment options. These options can help manage the symptoms associated with the disease. It's important for you to actively participate in your own care. People who do so report less pain and fewer visits to their doctors' offices.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease. In other words, it usually gets worse over time. If you have symptoms such as mild joint pain and stiffness today, you may be able to tolerate the discomfort. However, today's minor pain and inconvenience could deteriorate and have a profound impact on your quality of life tomorrow. Your doctor will check for these symptoms and can recommend strategies that will help slow, and maybe even stop, the changes taking place in your joints. Make an appointment to talk about your osteoarthritis soon.

Your doctor can evaluate for any structural abnormalities or family history that might increase your risk for osteoarthritis (OA), and will ask about possible symptoms of the disease. Finally, he or she can discuss occupational and recreational activities that have an effect on osteoarthritis risk, as well as actual versus ideal body weight.

If you have been diagnosed with or believe you have osteoarthritis, you should discuss your symptoms with your doctor. There are different treatment options depending on the stage of disease. Additionally, other disease processes should be evaluated with the use of a physical exam, tests and imaging.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis that affect your quality of life should be discussed with your doctor. Contact your doctor if you experience reduced range of motion or swelling in your joints that lasts for more than two weeks. Depending on the severity of your symptoms your family doctor may refer you to a doctor who specializes in joint problems.

Your doc might be pretty sure, based on your history and physical exam revealing stiff, achy joints, that you have osteoarthritis. However, to make sure that it is in fact osteoarthritis, the following tests are usually ordered:

  • Blood tests help exclude other causes of joint pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis or Lyme disease.
  • Fluid from inside a swollen joint can be tested to be sure an infection or gout isn’t causing the swelling and pain.
  • X-rays and sometimes MRIs are used to get a clear image of the painful joint to see if there is damage, like loss of cartilage, and how extensive it is.
  • CT scans can be used to see bone spurs (osteophytes) around the joint.
  • Ultrasounds help find cysts in the joint area.

To screen their patients for osteoarthritis, doctors usually check for these symptoms:

  • the amount of pain in a joint 
  • range of motion—how far the joint can be moved in any direction before it feels painful
  • muscle strength around the painful joint
  • swelling or tenderness around the joint
  • changes in the way you walk (gait), this could be a sign of osteoarthritis in the knee or hip

X-rays and sometimes MRIs are used to get a clear image of a painful joint. X-rays will pick up bone and joint abnormalities caused by osteoarthritis, while MRIs can better detect soft-tissue changes. Ultrasound, though used less often, may be useful in detecting signs of the disease such as cysts in the joint area. CT scans can help diagnose spinal osteoarthritis and rule out other possible causes of pain, such as a tumor. Doctors may also test fluid from inside a swollen joint to be sure an infection or gout isn't responsible for the swelling and pain. Blood tests to help diagnose osteoarthritis are used primarily to rule out other causes of joint pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis or Lyme disease.

The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Nor does the contents of this website constitute the establishment of a physician patient or therapeutic relationship. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.