What Is a Rheumatologist?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 13, 2023
3 min read

A rheumatologist is a doctor of internal medicine who specializes in arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions and systemic autoimmune diseases. These diseases can cause pain, swelling, and stiffness in joints, muscles, and bones.

Autoimmune diseases happen when your immune system causes unnecessary inflammation in different parts of your body. They can affect your skin, eyes, and internal organs, in addition to joints, muscles, and bones. Rheumatologists help diagnose and treat these problems. They also conduct research to better understand rheumatic diseases.

Doctors who specialize in rheumatology study conditions that affect the connective tissues. Many medical specialties focus on one part of the body. But because some connective tissue problems and autoimmune diseases affect the entire body, rheumatologists are trained to look at the whole person.

Rheumatologists have a lot of direct contact with their patients. They often provide long-term follow-up care. Some may even follow their patients’ journeys years after the pain or problem has been diagnosed and treatment has begun.

The first step to becoming a rheumatologist is to complete 4 years of medical school or osteopathic training. Next comes 3 years of medical residency to get hands-on experience in the field. Rheumatologist hopefuls can complete this residency in internal medicine or pediatrics. Some may study both.

After residency, doctors can take part in a rheumatology fellowship that takes 2 to 3 years. They’ll study autoimmune diseases and musculoskeletal conditions and how to treat them.

Rheumatologists must then take an exam by the American Board of Internal Medicine to become board certified in rheumatology.

These doctors stay up-to-date on techniques and studies and retake certification exams every 10 years. Rheumatologists also need a certain number of continuing education hours every year.

Rheumatologists can treat more than 100 rheumatic diseases. Some of the more common ones are:

Although many doctors who practice rheumatology are trained to treat different symptoms, some focus on specific subsets. For example, pediatric rheumatologists are trained to treat children under 18 years old because their bodies are quite different from those of adults.

Almost everyone has some pain in the muscles or joints from time to time. But if it lasts days or more, it might be a good idea to visit a rheumatologist.

It can be hard to diagnose some rheumatic diseases in the early stages. But some of these conditions respond best to early care, so it’s better to see a specialist sooner rather than later. Without treatment, they may lead to joint damage.

It’s also good to see a rheumatologist if you notice symptoms of autoimmune or rheumatic disease and you have a family history of these conditions.

Rheumatic diseases change over time. A rheumatologist can set up a personalized treatment plan to manage your symptoms.

Rheumatologists start with a physical exam and may ask about your personal and family health history. They use this information to narrow down what may be causing your symptoms.

If you’ve had testing or imaging for your symptoms, bring copies of any documents or scans to your rheumatologist.

Some treatments that a rheumatologist might recommend include:

Your rheumatologist will probably have follow-up appointments with you to help you deal with your symptoms. They can also teach you ways to regain function and improve your quality of life.