Is It Time to See a Doctor for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

If you have joint pain and swelling that won't budge, it's time to book an appointment.

A woman with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms sees her doctor to discuss symptoms and when she should see a rheumatologist.

Medically reviewed in July 2021

Occasional joint pain doesn't usually require medical treatment, but pain that won't go away or that gets worse shouldn't be ignored. See your healthcare provider (HCP) if you have any of these symptoms for more than a couple of weeks: 

  • Morning joint stiffness for more than 30 to 60 minutes after you get out of bed 
  • Pain, stiffness, or swelling in three or more joints 
  • Heat or warmth around any of your joints 
  • Symmetrical joint pain (symptoms in the same joints on both sides of your body) 
  • Low-grade fever and fatigue 

Try to get an appointment as soon as possible—ideally, within a week—to find out what's causing your pain. If it is rheumatoid arthritis (RA), early treatment will give you the best chance of slowing or even stopping the disease (including joint and bone damage). 

If your primary care physician can't see you within a week, consider making an appointment directly with a rheumatologist. Ask your regular HCP for a referral or find a rheumatologist on your own. Lists of rheumatologists are available through the American College of Rheumatology or at Sharecare.com. Some hospitals and medical centers also have arthritis centers. Contact your local hospitals and ask if they can help you find programs like these. 

Which doctors treat RA? 
Often, the first HCP you'll see for arthritis joint pain will be your primary care physician. If RA is suspected, they will refer you to a rheumatologist for a complete diagnosis and treatment. Why see a rheumatologist? Rheumatologists specialize in RA and similar diseases. Other healthcare providers that can help with RA pain and symptoms include: 

  • Nurses can help manage RA on an everyday basis. They may act as liaisons between you and your rheumatologist, help with treatment plans, and provide information and care. 
  • Occupational therapists teach you how to protect your joints, minimize pain and conserve energy while going about everyday tasks, from getting dressed to carrying groceries. 
  • Physical therapists (or physiotherapists) work with you to improve joint function and reduce pain using exercises, relaxation techniques, heat, cold and other non-drug treatments. 
  • Rehabilitation specialists (or physiatrists) are doctors who specialize in physical rehabilitation. Their goal is to help you maintain or regain as much function as possible. 
  • Psychologists and social workers can help you cope with the effects of living with a chronic condition. Cognitive behavioral therapy may help relieve pain; social workers can assist with the practicalities of disability, home healthcare and other issues. 
  • Orthopedic surgeons specialize in treating bones, joints, muscles and tendons and perform procedures such as joint injections and joint replacements.

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