Information for Health Care Providers
Over 54 million US adults have arthritis, and most health care providers will treat someone with arthritis. Most patients do not see a rheumatologist for their arthritis. Instead, they may go to primary care providers, such as family practitioners, internists, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. All health care providers can use this page as a resource for information about diagnosing, treating, and managing arthritis in their patients.
Arthritis includes over 100 different conditions and affects about 1 in 4 adults. Arthritis affects many aspects of their lives. Visit the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) websiteExternal to learn about arthritis and rheumatic diseases.
There are many types of arthritis with many different symptoms, but common symptoms include joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Know what to look for and when to refer your patients to a specialist.
Symptoms to Look for
General symptoms of arthritis are joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, but different types have unique symptoms. Learn more about symptoms of different types of arthritis.
- For information about the symptoms of common types of arthritis, visit the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Arthritis and Rheumatic Diseases pageExternal and select the type of arthritis.
- For information about more types of arthritis, visit the Arthritis Foundation’s list of arthritis typesExternal.
Who Is at Risk?
Risk factors vary depending on arthritis type, and can vary by age, sex, and genetics. Most types of arthritis are more common in women, including osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and fibromyalgia. Gout is more common in men.
A primary health care provider can often provide basic care for a patient with arthritis, especially osteoarthritis, but sometimes it is necessary to refer a patient to a rheumatologist. A primary health care provider can often partner with a rheumatologist to provide the best care.
Primary health care providers should consider referring patients to a rheumatologist if:
- You diagnose or suspect an inflammatory type of arthritis (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriatic arthritis), or to confirm a diagnosis.
- A patient needs a management plan for a type of inflammatory arthritis.
- A patient has unexpected complications such as unexplained fever, abnormal laboratory findings, or onset of unexplained symptoms (fatigue, rash, anemia, etc.).
To learn more about when to refer a patient, read the American College of Rheumatology’s Referral Guidelines Cdc-pdf[PDF-37KB]External.
Find rheumatologists near your patient in ACR’s Find a Rheumatologist databaseExternal.
Telemedicine is the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients using technology like video chat. It is a small but rapidly growing part of health care in the United States. Telemedicine is especially important in areas where there are few health care providers or specialists like rheumatologists, such as rural areas or underserved populations. Telemedicine for the diagnosis and management of rheumatic disease is called telerheumatology.
Learn more about telerheumatology:
There are a number of effective non-medication options available to treat and manage arthritis. Learn more about all options available to help your patients find the management plan that works for them.
Clinical Practice Guidelines
When treating arthritis, it is important to know what treatment and management strategies are best practice. ACR has developed clinical practice guidelinesExternal for several types of arthritis.
Treatments vary depending on the type of arthritis, but it is always good to work with your patient to create a treatment plan that is right for them. Many people with arthritis prefer non-medication treatments. See the Pain Management without Medications section below for more information.
To learn more about treating specific types of arthritis, visit the NIAMS page on types of arthritis and rheumatic diseasesExternal.
Pain Management without Medications
Effective pain management is an important part of treating arthritis and can improve quality of life for patients with arthritis. There are multiple ways for adults with arthritis to reduce their pain without using medications and risking their side effects. Studies have shown physical activity to be an effective way to manage arthritis pain. To learn more, see the “Encouraging Self-Management” section below.
There are many medications used to treat arthritis and its symptoms.
Learn about prescription arthritis medications
Learn about using over-the-counter medications to treat arthritis symptoms:
- Arthritis Foundation’s Understanding Over-the-Counter Pain Medication infographicExternal
Medication Assistance Programs
Some patients may need help paying for their arthritis medication.
- For general medication assistance, refer your patients to the RxAssist patient assistance programs databaseExternal.
- For arthritis-specific medication assistance, see ACR’s medication assistance programs handout Cdc-pdf[PDF-104KB]External, which lists assistance programs for many prescription arthritis medications.
You also can visit the Arthritis Foundation’s page on paying for arthritis treatmentExternal.
Opioids Versus Non-opioids for Pain Relief
In light of the current opioid epidemic, providers are paying more attention to when it is most appropriate to prescribe opioid medications for pain. CDC published guidelines on prescribing opioids for chronic pain.
To learn more about the use of opioids versus non-opioids to treat osteoarthritis and back pain, read this article from the Annals of Internal Medicine comparing the effectiveness of nonopioids and opioids on easing painExternal.
Monitoring Your Patient’s Progress Throughout Treatment
After you and your patient have established a treatment plan, make sure to follow up to see if he or she is acting on recommendations and if these have been effective.
Check with your arthritis patient to see if he or she is:
- Using self-management strategies.
- Engaging in arthritis-appropriate physical activity, such as walking or water aerobics.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
To learn more about encouraging these self-management strategies, see the “Encouraging Self-Management” section directly below.
Self-management is an effective way to manage arthritis symptoms. “Self-management” strategies and activities are the day-to-day things a person chooses to do to manage his or her condition and stay healthy. CDC’s Arthritis Program recommends five self-management strategies for managing arthritis. Here is more information on how you can encourage three of these strategies.
Encouraging Physical Activity
CDC recommends that health care providers counsel their arthritis patients to be physically active. Joint-friendly physical activity can improve arthritis pain, function, mood, and quality of life for people with arthritis. Being physically active can also delay the onset of arthritis-related disability and help people with arthritis manage other chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Health care providers and patients can learn more about physical activity for arthritis, including how much activity a person needs, what types of activity are appropriate for people with arthritis, and what to do if someone has pain while exercising.
- Learn more about counseling arthritis patients to exercise to ease arthritis pain.
- The Arthritis Foundation has a page of arthritis-friendly workoutsExternal that you can recommend for your patients. You can also refer them to CDC-recommended, community-based physical activity programs.
Encouraging Participation in Self-Management Education Workshops
Self-management education (SME) workshops are community-based programs that teach people who have chronic conditions to gain confidence and use self-management strategies to manage their conditions and live life to the fullest. SME workshops also benefit patients with multiple chronic conditions.
- Learn about CDC-recommended SME workshops that are proven to improve the quality of life for people with arthritis.
- Learn more about self-management education workshops for chronic conditions in general and for specific chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer by visiting the CDC Learn More. Feel Better. campaign website.
Encouraging Weight Management
Losing weight can ease arthritis pain. Adults with arthritis can decrease pain and improve function by maintaining a healthy weight. Weight loss is a non-drug way to manage arthritis and ease joint pain. Health care professionals should counsel their arthritis patients to lose weight if they are overweight or have obesity. Research suggests that patients who receive weight counseling from a health care professional are almost four times more likely to attempt weight loss than those not receiving counseling.
- Learn more about counseling weight loss for adults with arthritis.
- Read more about weight loss for patients with arthritis in the MMWR Health Care Provider Counseling for Weight Loss among Adults with Arthritis and Overweight or Obesity—United States, 2002–2014.
- The Arthritis Foundation also has weight loss resourcesExternal to help you counsel your patients on how to lose weight with arthritis.
Adults with arthritis are more likely to have anxiety or depression symptoms than those who do not have arthritis. Of the 54 million adults with arthritis, over 10 million report symptoms of anxiety or depression. Adults with arthritis who are younger (aged 18 to 44 years) or who also have other chronic conditions are more likely to have anxiety or depression symptoms than other adults with arthritis.
It is important to screen your patients with arthritis for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. Offer care, treatment, and referrals to services. Treating mental illness may also help patients manage their pain and other arthritis symptoms better.
- Read more about the prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms among adults with arthritis in the recent MMWR: Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression Among Adults with Arthritis—United States, 2015–2017.
- To learn more about the link between arthritis, depression, and anxiety, see the Arthritis Foundation’s page, the Arthritis-Depression ConnectionExternal.
Although more common in adults, arthritis and other rheumatic conditions also occur in children. The most common type of childhood arthritis is juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), also known as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Read on to learn about treating childhood arthritis and other rheumatic conditions, and transitioning your pediatric patients to adult care. Referral to a pediatric rheumatologist can help.
- To find a pediatric rheumatologist near you, go to ACR’s rheumatologist locatorExternal and filter results to show providers who specialize in pediatric rheumatology.
Arthritis in Children
Lupus in Children and Teens
Lupus is another rheumatic condition that can occur in children. To learn about lupus in children and teens, visit the resources below.
The symptoms of childhood arthritis can vary, but usually include pain, stiffness, and swelling. These symptoms can sometimes be confused with other illnesses and injuries.
- Visit the Arthritis Foundation website, Kids Get Arthritis, Too, to learn more about symptomsExternal and other basics of juvenile arthritisExternal.
Treating and Managing Arthritis in Children
There are many ways to treat arthritis in children. You should work with your patient and their parents or caregivers to create a treatment plan that works for them.
- Visit the Kids Get Arthritis, Too page on medical care for juvenile arthritisExternal.
- To learn how to help your patients and their caregivers manage their medications, visit the Kids Get Arthritis, Too page on managing medicationsExternal.
Encouraging Physical Activity in Children
Physical activity can be a good way for kids to manage their arthritis pain. To learn about the importance of physical activity for managing childhood arthritis and how patients can stay active, visit the Kids Get Arthritis Too page staying active with juvenile arthritisExternal.
Transitioning Patients to Adult Care
Although some children with arthritis achieve permanent remission, sometimes childhood arthritis can continue into adulthood. The transition from pediatric to adult care can be difficult for patients and physicians.
To learn how to transition pediatric patients to adult care, visit
Want to learn more or get continuing education credit? Professional education and other resources are available.
- American College of Rheumatology—Health Professional EducationExternalExternal
- Osteoarthritis Action Alliance—Resources for Health Care ProvidersExternalExternal
- Lupus Foundation—Resources for Health Care ProfessionalsExternalExternal
- American College of Physicians—Arthritis Online Learning CenterExternalExternal
Below, are resources to help your patients learn about arthritis types, living with arthritis, and more.
Patient Education Resources
- American College of Rheumatology—Patient and Caregiver ResourcesExternal
- American College of Rheumatology—Patient Education VideosExternal
- American Occupational Therapy Association—Tips for Living with ArthritisExternal
- Arthritis Foundation—Arthritis Resource FinderExternal
- Osteoarthritis Action Alliance—Resource Library for Health ProfessionalsExternal
- RxAssist—Prescription Drug Assistance Program DatabaseExternal