Who Treats Spondyloarthritis?

Spondyloarthritis is an umbrella term that includes a variety of inflammatory rheumatic diseases that cause arthritis.1 This includes axial spondyloarthritis (AxSpA). The arthritis these diseases cause is different than the “typical” arthritis because these types of arthritis involve the spaces where ligaments and tendons attach to bones.1

In osteoarthritis, the cartilage that protects the bones wears away, which is different than the disease process in spondyloarthritis.

Getting a prompt, accurate diagnosis is important because this helps guide treatment, but this is not always as easy as it seems.

Finding a doctor

The symptoms of spondyloarthritis are general, meaning many people will likely go to their primary care provider when symptoms arise. Symptoms of spondyloarthritis include inflammation, pain, and stiffness, often in the back and pelvis.1 If a primary care provider (PCP) is unaware of spondyloarthritis and doesn’t ask questions about family history or do a thorough physical exam, they might miss important information that might provide clues to an accurate diagnosis.

A PCP can order tests if they suspect spondyloarthritis, in addition to their physical exam and medical/family history. They may order x-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or even blood tests for the HLA-B27 gene, which is associated with spondyloarthritis.

If a primary care physician is knowledgeable about spondyloarthritis and runs tests to confirm their suspicions, once a diagnosis is made they may refer you to a specialist called a rheumatologist.

What is a rheumatologist?

Many people with arthritis see a rheumatologist. A rheumatologist is a doctor with added training in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal disease and autoimmune conditions.2 These conditions can affect the joints, bones, and muscles. Rheumatologists treat joint diseases but don’t perform surgery.2

Depending on your symptoms, a rheumatologist may work with other doctors and specialists to coordinate treatment plans.

Not all rheumatologists are familiar with AxSpA and may misinterpret symptoms. When looking for a rheumatologist, if you or your PCP or other health care provider are suspecting a condition on the AxSpA spectrum, finding a doctor who specializes in spondyloarthritis may be helpful.

Things to ask a potential provider

When you find a doctor or rheumatologist that can help you, asking them questions about their practice and experience with spondyloarthritis can be helpful: make sure they’re accessible and evaluate their experience. Here are some questions that might help you decide on a provider:

  • What are your office hours, and do you take emergency appointments?
  • Do you see patients with spondyloarthritis? About how many per year?
  • What insurance do you accept?
  • Do you work with other specialists to come up with a joint treatment plan?
  • Are you familiar with the AxSpA spectrum?

Being able to talk with your doctor about your condition and ask your doctor questions is important for your care, so it can be helpful to see how they address your initial concerns or questions. If you don’t like the way one doctor treats your concerns, find another one who will be open to working with you as a team.

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Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: May 2020