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What Is a Rheumatologist?

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  • Written By: L. Whitaker
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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A rheumatologist is a doctor of internal medicine or pediatrics who has pursued specialized training in diseases of the joints, muscles, and bones, most commonly including various types of arthritis. In addition to diagnosing and treating arthritis and similar conditions, many rheumatologists tend to be involved in research to advance the understanding of these types of disorders. Rheumatologists can act in a consulting role to a primary care physician, or in some cases they manage an individual's healthcare team to provide an interdisciplinary care approach due to the chronic nature of the patient's disorder.

An individual in the U.S. will most likely be referred to a rheumatology doctor by his or her primary care physician. This referral typically occurs when a patient presents with a severe or ongoing pain in the bones, joints, or muscles. Specialists in rheumatology frequently treat individuals who have a type of arthritis. Many rheumatologists also treat a large variety of systemic conditions and autoimmune disorders, including lupus, vasculitis, scleroderma, sarcoidosis, fibromyalgia, and polymyositis. Other examples of diseases affecting the joints or bones that might be addressed by a rheumatologist include rickets, achondroplasia, tendinitis, and Marfan's syndrome.

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A rheumatologist provides nonsurgical means of treating bone, joint, and muscle disorders. An individualized treatment plan coordinated by a rheumatologist could include elements such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and the use of certain medications. Depending on the disease being treated, these drugs could include analgesics, steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or specialty medications designed for specific disorders.

In the U.S., a rheumatologist generally undergoes up to three years of special training following approximately seven years of general medical training. Many rheumatologists also follow a rigorous process to become board certified. A rheumatism doctor's credentials will indicate that he or she is a Fellow of the American College of Rheumatology, or F.A.C.R., or for an osteopathic rheumatologist, a Fellow of the American Osteopathic College of Rheumatology, or F.A.O.C.R.

As the disorder most frequently treated by rheumatologists, arthritis affected more than 46 million adults in the U.S. as of 2011. Two common types of this disorder are osteoarthritis, which involves the wearing down of joints over time as cartilage breaks down, and rheumatoid arthritis, which involves an abnormal inflammatory response. Osteoarthritis typically affects weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees. Rheumatoid arthritis often features stiffness and swelling in multiple joints accompanied by systemic symptoms, including fever, pain, or fatigue.

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