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Rheumatology is the study and treatment of rheumatism, characterized by inflammation in the body’s joints, muscles and connective tissue. Common rheumatic diseases include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

What does a rheumatologist do?

Rheumatologists aim to treat, diagnose and improve the quality of life for patients living with rheumatic diseases and joint pain. Many of the diseases rheumatologists treat are autoimmune, meaning the immune system that protects the body from infection cannot distinguish between healthy and unhealthy cells and destroys normal body tissue.

Rheumatic diseases are often difficult to treat, and many researchers conduct studies to find ways to improve treatment. In addition to taking prescribed medications, rheumatologists suggest patients exercise regularly, eat well-balanced and nutritional meals, reduce emotional stress and get plenty of rest.

Rheumatic diseases

Over one million Americans have rheumatoid arthritis, and three-quarters are women. Arthritis causes a lot of pain and may also attack organs such as the lungs. Other symptoms include fatigue, fever and lumps under the skin. A doctor diagnoses this illness through blood tests and X-rays.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) also causes joint pain and fatigue, as well as facial rashes, sensitivity to the sun, hair loss, blood disorders and clotting, chest pain and seizures or strokes. Doctors diagnose SLE through blood and urine tests.

Approximately 27 million people have osteoarthritis, which damages the bones' cartilage (the material that protects the ends of bones and lets joints move freely). Joint movement becomes very painful. Many elderly people suffer from osteoarthritis, which affects the fingers, back, hips, neck and knees, and includes joint swelling and stiffness, muscle weakness, and difficulty with walking, personal grooming and sitting. Doctors conduct physical exams, blood tests and sample joint fluid to diagnose osteoarthritis.

Rheumatologists also diagnose people suffering with Sjogren's syndrome, which sometimes occurs with other illnesses, such as arthritis and SLE. Women are more at risk of having Sjogren's. Symptoms include irritated eyes, dry mouth, tooth decay, gum disease, swollen glands around the face and joint pain. Rheumatologists conduct blood tests and a biopsy of areas for a diagnosis.

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When people suffer from pain where their spine meets the pelvis, they may have ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Unlike other diseases, AS is more common in younger men, with onset typically between the teenage years and the age of 30. In severe cases, the spine becomes stiff and makes it difficult to bend and finish daily activities. When diagnosing AS, the doctor looks at X-rays of the back and prescribes blood tests.

Finding a rheumatologist

After completing medical school, rheumatologists complete a residency program in internal medicine and then receive a few years of highly specialized training in rheumatology.

As when looking for any other health care provider, you can get referrals from your primary doctor. Depending on your policy, you may need a referral from your primary care physician in order for your policy to pay for treatment. Contact your health insurance company to make sure that rheumatology is covered.

Read through the listing of rheumatologists in the provider directory available from your health insurance company. Verify their qualifications, education, continuing education, accepted insurance plans and affiliated hospitals by consulting Angie's List, where you can also see member reviews and rankings.

However, patients relate differently to the same doctor, so it may be necessary to talk with a couple of rheumatology specialists before finding one that provides the most comfort. It's also helpful to talk with the doctor's staff members, since they interact a great deal with the patients.

You should also look for physicians who are keeping up to date on the many changes that are taking place in the rheumatology field. You should also find a doctor who stresses preventive care, such as exercise and nutrition, especially with immune deficiency diseases.