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Rheumatology is a medical subspecialty focused on what are called "rheumatic" disorders -- that is, painful and often inflammatory conditions of the musculoskeletal system (muscles, bones, joints and the connective tissue associated with these supportive tissues and structures). Some of the diseases or conditions that rheumatologists address include inflammatory arthritis (that is, joint pain caused primarily by inflammation as opposed to injury or degeneration), tendinitis, bursitis, and a large group of connective tissue disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis caused by the immune system attacking the body's own tissues (therefore also known as "autoimmune" disorders) and which can affect parts of the body outside the musculoskeletal system. Because rheumatic disorders affect those body areas and functions associated with motion and activity, they are common causes of physical disability.
Physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and medical treatment of rheumatic disorders are referred to as "rheumatologists"; here's how the American College of Rheumatology describes what they do:
A rheumatologist is an internist or pediatrician who is qualified by additional training and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and other diseases of the joints, muscles, and bones. There are more than 100 types of these diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout, lupus, back pain, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, and tendonitis. Some of these are very serious diseases that can be difficult to diagnose and treat.
As noted above, many rheumatic disorders are tricky to diagnose since they can resemble other conditions early on and change over time. Rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory or autoimmune rheumatic diseases are important to diagnose and treat as early as possible to preserve as much bone, cartilage and joint structure and function as possible, and before significant tissue damage has occurred. Fibromyalgia, another common rheumatologic condition, does not appear to cause any obvious damage, but is just as important to recognize as soon as possible because it can be functionally debilitating and similarly difficult to manage.
Rheumatologists have particular expertise performing joint examinations to look for subtle signs that provide clues to a diagnosis. They don't perform surgery on joints the way orthopedic surgeons do, but like orthopedists they can withdraw fluid from joint spaces to help diagnose conditions and inject medications into these areas to help treat them.
As with many other medical conditions, a primary care physician (internist, family practitioner, pediatrician) may make the diagnosis of a rheumatic disorder and formulate a treatment plan, but sometimes it may take multiple visits and tests and require the assistance and particular expertise of a rheumatologist.
For more information about rheumatologists on the Medical Staff at The Chester County Hospital and Health System, call our Physician Referral Service at 610.738.2300 or visit the Find a Doctor section of our website.
Last Updated: 2/22/2013