Getting a diagnosis
If you have any pain, stiffness or swelling in your joints, it is important that you visit a GP as soon as possible.
It is possible that your GP will be able to diagnose you right away, but, in some instances, they may need to refer you to a rheumatologist or orthopaedic surgeon at your local hospital. A diagnosis will be made on the basis of your symptoms, a physical examination and medical tests.
When you visit your GP be ready to give a full description of any pain, stiffness or other problems. You will be working together with your GP to manage your condition so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make a list before the appointment so that you don’t forget anything or take a family member/friend with you.
Testing for osteoarthritis (OA)
Your GP will:
Check for any bony swellings and creaking joints, as well as looking out for any restricted movement, joint tenderness or instability
Test your blood to rule out other kinds of arthritis
Perform X-rays to confirm OA and to see how much damage has occurred
If you are diagnosed with OA, your GP will be your main contact for managing your condition. They may also refer you to a physiotherapist for advice on keeping your joints mobile. If your arthritis is severe, the GP can refer you to a rheumatologist, orthopaedic surgeon or pain specialist.
Testing for rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
Your GP will:
Examine your joints and skin, and test your muscle strength
Carry out blood tests looking for inflammation
Do X-rays to find early signs of damage to joints and bones
If you are diagnosed with RA, your GP will refer you to other healthcare professionals including a rheumatologist and physiotherapist. You will also be prescribed drugs to control the disease and reduce the inflammation.
Help with long-term pain:
GPs are very well trained in exploring all aspects of medical problems, including both physical and emotional parts, and usually know how to treat problems related to pain. Your GP should know how to correctly understand what symptoms mean and whether they’re caused by ‘new’ pain or a flare-up of long-term pain. They’ll know when to react, for example by ordering further tests.
GPs can work with you to draw up a plan, which is important with long-term conditions. Living well despite pain is a skill which takes time to master. Your GP will be crucial to how you deal with long-term pain, so it’s important that you try to build a relationship where you can speak openly and be listened to, ask questions and trust the advice you’re given. Ask them to make the information clearer if you’re worried or unsure.
What types of treatment can my GP prescribe?
In addition to simple painkillers, GPs often prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or opioids. Occasionally medicines that aren’t traditionally used to treat pain can be prescribed, for example anti-seizure medication like gabapentin, which was originally developed to treat epilepsy, can be effective for neuropathic pain. Anti-depressants are also commonly used to treat long-term pain, whether you have depression or not.
Who can GPs refer me to?
GPs are good at knowing where to refer you to if you need other treatments. They can help you get access to other medical professionals and the following services:
Exercise to maintain fitness and general health
Occupational therapy to help with daily living and functionality
Psychology to help optimise coping strategies and living well
Physiotherapy for specific musculoskeletal problems
Other doctors for second opinions.