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How is Arthritis Diagnosed?

As we grow older, it's not unusual to suffer from aches and pains or stiffness of joints. However, these could be signs of arthritis. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to help slow down the progression of the disease and prevent further damage to joints.

Arthritis is a general term used to refer to conditions that affect the joints and surrounding tissues. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, all of which can cause pain and other symptoms.

In the UK the number of people thought to suffer from arthritis is around 10 million - almost one-sixth of the population. While the condition can develop at any age, it’s most commonly found in adults over forty and is more common in women than in men.

There are several different ways that arthritis can be diagnosed. A GP will usually start by asking about symptoms and carrying out a physical examination. They may also refer you for more tests or to a specialist.

While it may feel frightening to think that you may be suffering from arthritis, getting a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible will help you to manage your condition in the best possible way for the long term. With this in mind, we look at how arthritis is diagnosed.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you have persistent pain or stiffness in a joint that is not improving or is getting worse. Symptoms that might suggest you have arthritis include:

  • pain
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • redness

Arthritis can also cause fatigue and loss of appetite, so it's important to tell your doctor if you're feeling these symptoms too.

Find out more about the symptoms of arthritis.

No one test can diagnose all types of arthritis. Instead, doctors use a combination of medical history, physical examination and tests to make a diagnosis.

Medical history and diagnosis of arthritis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and when they started. They will also ask about your medical history and whether anyone in your family has arthritis or other joint problems.

Arthritis can be a hereditary condition, so if anyone in your family has arthritis, you may be more likely to develop the condition yourself.

Your doctor will also want to know about any previous injuries or infections that may have affected your joints as in some cases this can contribute to the development of arthritis. Certain sports injuries may also increase your risk of developing the condition.

In order to rule out other illnesses that may be causing your symptoms, your doctor may also ask about any other health problems you have. This is because some types of arthritis are associated with other diseases such as osteoporosis or rheumatoid disease.

Physical examination to diagnose arthritis

During a physical examination, your doctor will check for signs of arthritis or other problems with your joints. They will look for:

During a physical examination, your doctor will check for signs of arthritis. They may look for:

  • Tenderness or pain in the joints
  • Swelling in the joints
  • Stiffness in the joints
  • Redness or warmth in the joints
  • Loss of range of motion in the joints
  • Joint deformity

Your doctor will examine your joints for signs of swelling, tenderness or redness. They may also check for deformities such as knobbing of the fingers (Heberden's nodes) or a sunken appearance to the chest (funnel chest).

They may also check for signs of other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, such as gout or infection.

It's vital that if you are seeing your GP for a potential diagnosis of arthritis that you mention all the symptoms you may be suffering - not just those relating to the painful joint. This allows them to better rule out other causes and also may help them to understand what type of arthritis you may have which will make the diagnosis process easier.

What tests help to diagnose arthritis?

The type of tests that are carried out will depend on the type of arthritis that is suspected. Blood tests can be used to look for signs of inflammation or infection and to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.

Imaging tests such as x-rays, MRI or ultrasound scans can be used to assess the condition of joints and look for any damage.

Blood tests for arthritis

There are a number of different blood tests that can be used to diagnose arthritis. These include tests to look for:

  • Inflammation:
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)
  • C-reactive protein (CRP)
  • Autoantibodies:
  • Anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies
  • Rheumatoid factor (RF)
  • Joint damage:
  • Full blood count (FBC)

The tests chosen by your doctor will depend on the type of arthritis that is suspected. For example in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, there is a blood test which measures levels of rheumatoid factors in the blood. Rheumatoid factors are proteins that the immune system produces when it attacks healthy tissue. About half of all people with rheumatoid arthritis have high levels of rheumatoid factors in their blood when the disease starts

MRI scans to test for arthritis

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of your body.

An MRI scan can be used to assess the condition of joints and look for any damage. It is particularly useful for diagnosing problems with soft tissues such as ligaments.

Joint aspiration for arthritis

A joint aspiration involves taking a small sample of fluid from a joint using a needle and syringe. This can be tested for evidence of infection or inflammation.

The procedure is usually carried out under local anaesthetic, which numbs the area around the joint. A sterile needle is then inserted into the joint space and a small amount of fluid is removed.

The fluid sample will be examined under a microscope and may also be tested for the presence of bacteria or other microorganisms.

X-ray for arthritis

An x-ray is a type of imaging test that uses high-energy beams of electromagnetic radiation to produce images of the inside of your body.

X-rays can be used to assess the condition of joints and look for any damage. They are often used alongside other tests such as MRI or ultrasound scans.

Ultrasound scan for arthritis

An ultrasound scan uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of the inside of your body.

Ultrasound scans can be used to assess the condition of joints and look for any damage. They are often used alongside other tests such as x-rays or MRI scans.

Bone densitometry for an arthritis diagnosis

Bone densitometry is a type of imaging test that uses low-dose x-rays to measure the density of bones. It is used to assess the risk of developing osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become fragile and more likely to break.

Bone densitometry can also be used to diagnose arthritis, as it can show any damage or changes to the bones that have occurred as a result of the condition.

What is the treatment for arthritis?

The treatment for arthritis will depend on the type of arthritis and the severity of the symptoms. In many cases, a combination of different treatments is most effective.

Treatments that can be used to relieve pain and other symptoms include:

  • painkillers
  • anti-inflammatory drugs
  • steroid injections
  • physiotherapy

Some types of arthritis can be treated with surgery. This might involve joint replacement surgery, in which damaged joints are replaced with artificial ones.

Living with arthritis can be challenging, however by getting a diagnosis, you can better make plans to ensure that you are as comfortable as possible and put in place a treatment plan.

Here at SureSafe we provide a wide range of personal alarms that can help those who suffer from arthritis to feel more secure that, should they fall or get into difficulties that help is always on hand. Get in touch with us on 0800 112 3201 to learn more about the best options for you or your loved one.

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