Female doctor examining elderly woman for signs of arthritis

Many people feel stiff and sore when they wake up in the morning and while engaging in daily activities. Oftentimes, joint pain is unexplained, which leads individuals to consult a doctor for a professional opinion about what’s going on.

It may surprise some people to learn that there is not one single arthritis test used to make an arthritis diagnosis. In fact, the process of conducting a test for arthritis often involves asking a lot of questions, having a physical exam, and ordering multiple lab and imaging tests.1,2,3

Here is some information about how medical professionals make an arthritis diagnosis and the various arthritis test options that may be conducted.

Do I have Arthritis?

Not every form of joint pain is arthritis, but many people wonder, “Do I have arthritis?” when the pain becomes persistent or gets in the way of daily life. As with many diagnosis procedures, an experienced physician will typically begin a patient office visit with an evaluation of the medical and family history.2 This conversation will include topics like when did the joint symptoms start, the level of pain, any pain triggers, past and current health conditions, family history of arthritis, and lifestyle habits.

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How to Test for Arthritis in a Physical Exam

After these initial conversations, the next step in conducting a test for arthritis is a physical exam.2 Doctors will touch the affected joints to check for swelling, redness, and stiffness. It is also common for doctors to make a joint count of how many joints are affected and whether they are on one or both sides of the body. Joint warmth and fluid can often also be felt during a physical exam of an arthritis patient. In addition to a joint assessment, doctors will commonly also take a patient’s temperature, look into the eyes, nose, ears, and throat, and check for reflexes and swollen glands.

Arthritis Test Lab and Imaging Options

Beyond what can be determined in a physical exam, doctors may also conduct lab and imaging tests to confirm an arthritis diagnosis. Bodily fluids and an internal look at the joints can often reveal what external symptoms cannot.2,4

For example, if a doctor suspects that a patient has an inflammatory form of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lab tests are often used. These may include an antinuclear antibody test, rheumatoid factor test, anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide test, and uric acid test. Other tests can be used to monitor arthritis conditions over time and see if a medication is helping a patient. Common monitoring tests include a salicylate level test, creatinine test, and muscle enzyme tests.

However, it is important to remember that there are limitations as to what lab tests can do and what they reveal. Especially in the early stages of an arthritis disease, patients may not test positive for arthritis even though their joints are worsening.5,6 This is why X-rays, MRIs, and other imaging tests are often used to make an arthritis diagnosis.7 During the process of obtaining an accurate diagnosis, people with joint pain can use over-the-counter solutions and home remedies, such as JointFlex, ice packs, and heating pads, to relieve the pain until a long-term treatment plan can be established.

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1. Arthritis diagnosis. University of Rochester Medical Center. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=85&contentid=P00050.
2. Diagnosing arthritis. Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/diagnosing-arthritis.php.
3. Do I have arthritis? Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/do-i-have-arthritis.php.
4. Dunkin, M. A. Lab test guide. Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/tools-resources/lab-test-guide/.
5. Frank, J. (2016 August 26). Rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis. Arthritis Health. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from https://www.arthritis-health.com/types/rheumatoid/rheumatoid-arthritis-diagnosis/.
6. Frank, J. (2016 August 24). Blood test to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Arthritis Health. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from https://www.arthritis-health.com/types/rheumatoid/blood-tests-help-diagnose-rheumatoid-arthritis-ra.
7. Medical imaging for arthritis diagnosis. Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved November 10, 2018 from http://blog.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/medical-imaging-arthritis-diagnosis/.