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National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

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How Do Doctors Diagnose Osteoarthritis?

No single test can diagnose osteoarthritis. Most doctors use a combination of the following methods to diagnose the disease and rule out other conditions:

Clinical history

The doctor begins by asking the patient to describe the symptoms, and when and how the condition started, as well as how the symptoms have changed over time. The doctor will also ask about any other medical problems the patient and close family members have and about any medications the patient is taking. Accurate answers to these questions can help the doctor make a diagnosis and understand the impact the disease has on your life.

Physical examination

The doctor will check the patient’s reflexes and general health, including muscle strength. The doctor will also examine bothersome joints and observe the patient’s ability to walk, bend, and carry out activities of daily living.

X rays

Doctors take x rays to see how much joint damage has been done. X rays of the affected joint can show such things as cartilage loss, bone damage, and bone spurs. But there often is a big difference between the severity of osteoarthritis as shown by the x ray and the degree of pain and disability felt by the patient. Also, x rays may not show early osteoarthritis damage before much cartilage loss has taken place.

Magnetic resonance imaging

Also known as an MRI, magnetic resonance imaging provides high-resolution computerized images of internal body tissues. This procedure uses a strong magnet that passes a force through the body to create these images. Doctors often use MRI tests if there is pain; if x-ray findings are minimal; and if the findings suggest damage to other joint tissues such as a ligament, or the pad of connective tissue in the knee known as the meniscus.

Other tests

The doctor may order blood tests to rule out other causes of symptoms. He or she may also order a joint aspiration, which involves drawing fluid from the joint through a needle and examining the fluid under a microscope.

It usually is not difficult to tell if a patient has osteoarthritis. It is more difficult to tell if the disease is causing the patient’s symptoms. Osteoarthritis is so common – especially in older people – that symptoms seemingly caused by the disease actually may be due to other medical conditions. The doctor will try to find out what is causing the symptoms by ruling out other disorders and identifying conditions that may make the symptoms worse. The severity of symptoms in osteoarthritis can be influenced greatly by the patient’s attitude, anxiety, depression, and daily activity level.

How Is Osteoarthritis Treated?

Four Goals of Osteoarthritis Treatment

  • to control pain
  • to improve joint function
  • to maintain normal body weight
  • to achieve a healthy lifestyle

WebMD Public Information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health

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