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Is Early Diagnosis of Arthritis Important?

Accurate Diagnosis Leads to Appropriate Treatment


Updated July 01, 2014

Question: Is Early Diagnosis of Arthritis Important?

When patients first have symptoms that may point to arthritis, how long should they wait before seeing a doctor? What's so important about seeing a doctor as opposed to self-treating?

Why does it seem to be difficult for some patients to get an accurate diagnosis early on? Is it possible or common to have more than one type of arthritis at the same time? What's the most difficult aspect of diagnosing arthritis?


First Arthritis Symptoms - When Should I See a Doctor?

According to the Arthritis Foundation, if you have signs or symptoms of arthritis for more than two weeks, it is time to see a doctor. These warning signs include:

  • joint pain
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • difficulty moving a joint

Self-Treatment - A Good Option?

Self-treating is not recommended for patients with new symptoms until the cause can be confirmed. The reason for this caution is that arthritis may be a symptom of a more serious condition such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, infection or malignancy. An accurate diagnosis leads the way to proper treatment.

Can Conditions Overlap?

Some patients may have more than one problem causing their arthritis symptoms, such as:

In some cases, a diagnosis may not be readily apparent on an initial evaluation. Symptoms may resolve in time, or new symptoms may develop that provide information and lead to a diagnosis.

Treatment Options Once Diagnosis Is Established

Once a diagnosis is established and other associated conditions excluded, self-treatment may be an option. Nonetheless, it is always best to discuss your treatment with your doctor, as patients may experience adverse effects from self-treatment.

For example, NSAIDS are available over-the-counter (OTC). We know that these medications may increase the risk of bleeding ulcers, cardiovascular, kidney and liver disease. Taking these medications without physician supervision may put you at increased risk of developing a life threatening adverse event.

In addition, while over-the-counter supplements and herbs may have benefit in helping arthritic symptoms, many of these treatments have not been extensively studied and pose a potential risk also.

Answer provided by Scott J. Zashin, M.D., clinical assistant professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Division of Rheumatology, in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Zashin is also an attending physician at Presbyterian Hospitals of Dallas and Plano. He is a fellow of the American College of Physicians and the American College of Rheumatology and a member of the American Medical Association. Dr. Zashin is author of Arthritis Without Pain - The Miracle of Anti-TNF Blockers and co-author of Natural Arthritis Treatment.

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