National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
How Do Doctors Diagnose Osteoarthritis? continued...
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.
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.
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
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
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