Diagnosis & Tests

Your healthcare provider (a primary care doctor or advanced care provider [physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner], internist, geriatrician, or an arthritis specialist called a rheumatologist) will use a combined approach to figure out if you have arthritis or some other condition that has similar symptoms. This approach can include the following tests:

Physical Examination

Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms, as well as other medical conditions you have or that run in your family. They will check your reflexes, muscle strength, range of motion (how much you can move your limbs), how you stand, walk, and bend, and will examine your joints for swelling or other signs of arthritis. Often, this is all that is needed to diagnose osteoarthritis.


These show if there is bone damage, loss of cartilage, bone spurs, or debris in the joint, especially if the condition is advanced. X-rays are especially helpful to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

This test is painless and non-invasive. An MRI is able to show the soft tissues of your joints better than X-rays. It is not usually needed but is often used for knee or shoulder problems if your healthcare provider is worried you have torn a ligament or tendon.

Joint aspiration

In this test, fluid from inside the joint is drawn into a needle. Then it is examined under a microscope to look for bacteria, crystals, or certain types of cells that indicate inflammation. This test is most useful to diagnose infections or gout in the joint.

Blood tests

Some blood tests can provide clues to the diagnosis, especially for rheumatoid arthritis and gout.

Tests for rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis varies a great deal from person to person and can be difficult to diagnose at the beginning when the symptoms are mild and only a few may be present. Your healthcare provider may order the following blood tests to help confirm the diagnosis:

  • Rheumatoid factor
  • Anti-CCP (cyclic citrullinated peptide) antibodies
  • White blood cell count
  • Red blood cell count (to look for anemia)
  • Sedimentation rate
  • C-reactive protein


Last Updated August 2020