Arthritis occurs when one or more joints become swollen and tender. The two main types are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, though there are more than 100 types of arthritis and related conditions. To provide you with the most effective treatment, your doctor will first need to accurately diagnose the type of arthritis you’re experiencing. 

While a physical exam and discussion of your symptoms and medical history can help doctors better understand your condition, they may still order medical imaging to assess the degree of the arthritis and determine how aggressively to treat it.

X-Rays for Arthritis

X-rays are two-dimensional images which can capture joint space narrowing, a hallmark characteristic of arthritis. They can also depict erosion of the bone, fractures, bone spurs, and reduced bone density. Since x-rays are simple, quick, and affordable, most physicians order them as the first method of diagnostic imaging for arthritis.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, x-rays are widely used to detect inflammatory arthritis, such as psoriatic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, or osteoarthritis. They are most effective for detecting joint damage that has already progressed, whereas other imaging techniques may be able to identify signs of arthritis even sooner.

Ultrasounds for Arthritis

Rheumatologists are increasingly leveraging ultrasounds to evaluate inflammatory types of arthritis. This imaging technique uses high-frequency soundwaves to capture images. Unlike x-rays, which focus on bone matter, an ultrasound can depict inflammation in soft tissue, including tendons and synovium, the tissue that lines joints.

In situations where a doctor needs to narrow down several possible conditions, an ultrasound is often prescribed. For example, if an ultrasound shows inflammation in the synovium after joint damage has already been detected via an x-ray, it could indicate the presence of rheumatoid arthritis instead of another type. Ultrasound guidance may also be used to help practitioners accurately inject medications into affected joints.


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is among the most advanced forms of diagnostic imaging. It uses a magnetic field and radio wave pulses to capture images of both the bones and soft tissue. MRIs are particularly useful for depicting bone marrow edema, a buildup of fluid in the bone marrow which can precede joint erosion. If this is detected in an MRI, a doctor may be more likely to prescribe a more aggressive treatment earlier than they would have otherwise.

In addition to the initial diagnosis of arthritis, further imaging may be recommended so that your doctor can actively monitor the progression of your arthritis. The first images can serve as a baseline, and any changes that appear over time can help inform further treatment decisions. For instance, there are ways to slow the development of rheumatoid arthritis through the use of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), if imaging suggests that it’s time to take a more aggressive treatment approach.

If you have or may have arthritis and have been recommended for imaging, turn to Cardinal Points Imaging. Our team is committed to making your experience as comfortable and convenient as possible. Request an appointment online or call (919) 877-5400.