The Ways Doctors Diagnose Osteoarthritis

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Medical History
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is a joint disease caused by loss of cartilage.

If you believe that you may have osteoarthritis, it is important to visit your doctor. There is no definitive test for osteoarthritis, so your doctor will use information about your symptoms and a joint examination to form a diagnosis.

How Osteoarthritis Is Diagnosed

The most common ways osteoarthritis is diagnosed include discussing your symptoms with your doctor and undergoing a joint examination. Your doctor may ask questions to see if you fit the profile of a typical osteoarthritis patient (most are over 45) and to check for a range of symptoms associated with osteoarthritis, including:

  • Joint pain
  • Excess fluid
  • Joint instability
  • Reduced motion in joints
  • The sound of bone rubbing on bone or a crunching feeling
  • The formation of bony spurs
  • The thinning of muscles
  • Joint pain that worsens throughout the day

Your doctor may also ask about the duration, location and strength of your joint symptoms or if you are taking any other medications.

4 Tests to Diagnose Osteoarthritis

If your doctor thinks you may have osteoarthritis but is unable to confirm her diagnosis, she may refer you for further tests. Doctors use imaging and lab tests in many cases to rule out the presence of other conditions.

1. X-rays

If you are experiencing joint pain, your doctor may recommend an X-ray for a clearer picture. An X-ray is usually a short procedure (10 minutes or so) that allows doctors to examine the extent of joint damage. It X-ray may show problems caused by osteoarthritis, such as the growth of bony spurs or a narrowing space between bones caused by cartilage loss. An X-ray can also aid a diagnosis by ruling out a fracture or other injury that could lead to joint pain.

If your diagnosis of osteoarthritis is confirmed, the X-ray may be used in the future to help assess how effective your treatment plan is.

2. MRI Scan

In some cases, your doctor may refer you for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Unlike X-rays, these scans can show the soft tissue around the joint. An MRI may be useful in a complicated case where the doctor suspects that another problem is causing your symptoms, such as a torn meniscus or bone damage.

3. Blood Tests

While there is no blood test that can definitively diagnose the presence of osteoarthritis, a blood test can be used to exclude the possibility of other conditions causing osteoarthritis-like symptoms.

Medical professionals cannot detect osteoarthritis directly in the blood stream. However, they can detect rheumatoid arthritis, the other most common type of arthritis, by measuring the levels of antibodies. Since the two forms of arthritis can have some similar symptoms, a blood test helps ensure that you receive the correct diagnosis.

4. Joint Aspiration

Joint aspiration can be used to diagnose knee or shoulder joint problems. A doctor will numb the affected area and then use a needle to withdraw fluid from the joint, and send the fluid to be analyzed. Medical specialists will look for evidence of joint deterioration or crystals. Once again, this test is useful as it can rule out other forms of arthritis.

If you are suffering from joint pain and stiffness, osteoarthritis is diagnosed primarily through a discussion and joint examination with your doctor. You may be referred for further testing, which will rule out other possible causes of persistent joint pain. While osteoarthritis is a problematic condition, how osteoarthritis is diagnosed is relatively straightforward. So, you should not hesitate to visit your doctor if you believe you are suffering from its symptoms.