Joint Problems

Diagnosis & Tests

Visit the Arthritis topic for more information on osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout.

History and Examination

Your healthcare provider will take a detailed history of your symptoms and general condition, and will ask you about:

  • when the symptoms began
  • how severe they are (are they causing pain and/or disability?)
  • whether you have family members with arthritis or related diseases
  • what medications you are taking – both prescription and non-prescription
  • your exercise and lifestyle habits
  • other symptoms such as weight or appetite loss, sleep problems, rashes, fever, muscle weakness, general sick feeling

Once the history is taken, your healthcare provider will do a physical examination. This will include:

  • a search for the source of the pain – whether it is within or outside a joint or referred from another location in your body (e.g., hip pain that comes from your back)
  • an evaluation of the affected area – particularly looking for signs of inflammation (redness, swelling, tenderness or pain, warmth, persistent stiffness, enlargement, or deformity)
  • assessment of which joints, and how many, are involved
  • a range of motion test
  • a check of joint stability
  • a test of your ability to walk a short distance and get in and out of a chair
  • evaluation of certain diagnostic movements, noting how painful, impaired, or stiff the motion is and whether there is pain mainly when the examiner moves your joint (more likely in arthritis) or more likely if you move it yourself (probably a muscle or soft tissue disorder)

Your healthcare provider may also want to order additional tests.

Lab Tests

These may include a blood test, urine test, and testing of the fluid taken out from the affected joint. Blood tests such as the ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate), rheumatoid factor test, and antinuclear antibodies test (ANA) can point to certain joint diseases.

Imaging Tests

These tests will allow your healthcare provider to view joint damage and include:

  • x-rays – this test looks at the bones and how they are aligned
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – this test looks at the soft tissue around the joints
  • ultrasound
  • arthroscopy – a procedure using a camera to look in the joint

A note about imaging tests and low back pain: many people with low back pain will have this pain resolve within 6 weeks with rest and strengthening exercises. Most of the time imaging tests are not needed for treatment of low back pain, but it is best to speak to your healthcare provider about your specific care.


Last Updated June 2020