Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be a debilitating autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the joints. Although symptoms usually come and go, it’s a chronic disease. If you’ve been diagnosed with RA, you’ll likely be dealing with it for the rest of your life. Therefore, it’s important to learn as much as you can about your diagnosis and managing the condition.
It’s estimated that about 1.3 million adults live with RA. It’s commonly mistaken for other health issues because it has other symptoms besides joint pain. Due to the increased risk of related problems, such as disability, it’s important to have a thorough discussion with your doctors about your lifestyle habits and an aggressive treatment plan. Consider the following tips to get the most out of your appointments.
RA is categorized as an autoimmune disease, which falls in the same family as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and ulcerative colitis. While RA does indeed affect your joints first, it can have many similar symptoms as other autoimmune diseases. This is why, aside from swollen and painful joints, you might also experience:
- extreme fatigue
- low-grade fever
- morning stiffness
- unexplained weight loss
- skin nodules (at pressure points like elbows and the back of the heel)
Left untreated, RA can increase the risk of related complications, such as deformity, disability, and organ problems. Finding the right doctor to obtain an accurate diagnosis is crucial.
You’ll likely see a number of different types of doctors over the course of your RA treatment.
Internist or family practice physician
Your primary care provider (PCP) should be your first stop if you experience any RA symptoms. Your PCP may be able to give you an RA diagnosis. They can also refer you to a rheumatologist or other doctor for further treatment.
A rheumatologist has special training in joint and connective tissue diseases, as well as immunology. If you’re diagnosed with RA, your rheumatologist will determine the best way to treat you. A rheumatologist will also monitor your symptoms and test results.
An orthopedist is a surgeon who specializes in bones and joint diseases and trauma. If your rheumatologist suspects joint damage, you may be referred to an orthopedist for further tests. This type of doctor will perform any surgery you may need.
Physical therapists help people maintain and restore movement and function lost to injury and disease. If you have RA, a physical therapist can help you create an exercise program to improve joint strength and function, and preserve range of motion. Your therapist may also offer tips for reducing pain.
Occupational therapists help people learn to perform everyday tasks more effectively. If you have RA, an occupational therapist can teach you ways to live with less pain. This might include learning new ways to bend or reach for things. Occupational therapists can also provide assistive devices such as splints and grabbing tools.
Your first appointment will ultimately set the tone for your RA treatment plan. Therefore, preparation is key to making sure your rheumatologist has all of the information needed to treat your symptoms properly. Not having enough information can result in more appointments and perhaps further diagnostic testing to get the data your doctor needs.
First, make sure you can provide a thorough account of your symptoms. It can help to have a journal or notepad detailing key things, such as:
- when your symptoms started
- when the last time you were totally well was
- if there was an event preceding the onset of symptoms (i.e. a severe infection)
- how your symptoms have changed
- whether your symptoms have worsened or spread to other joints
- which joints bother you the most right now
- how your symptoms affect everyday activities
- certain activities or movements that worsen your symptoms
- if there’s certain normal daily functions that have become difficult (i.e. holding a pen)
Since RA is an autoimmune disorder, genetics are thought to play a role in its development. This means that you might have a family history of autoimmune disorders. Your relatives may not necessarily have RA, however.
RA is thought to be related to a gene called HLA-DR4. Ask your family members about the possibility of RA or other autoimmune disorders that exist in the family. You’ll also want to provide your doctor with details surrounding your personal family history, including any other underlying diseases you might have.
Finally, you’ll want to make a list of all medications and supplements you take, including those sold over the counter. This can help prevent the possibility of drug interactions with any RA medications your doctor may prescribe. Also, tell your doctor if you’re currently taking any alternative or complementary therapies.
It helps to prepare for going to see your doctor by having a list of questions ready. Some things you might want to ask include:
- What are the benefits of starting treatment right away?
- What treatments do you recommend?
- What are the potential side effects of treatment?
- How should I deal with RA pain?
- Are there any alternative treatments that might help with my symptoms?
- Should I see any other doctors for RA care?
- How can you help me cope with the changes RA is making in my daily life?
- What are the long-term complications of RA?
- Are there any symptoms I should be particularly on the lookout for?
- Do you think I will need surgery to deal with my RA symptoms?
- Are there strategies to minimize the disease or disease progression?
- Are there options to try to facilitate remission?
Some people get all the support they need from family and friends. Others find it useful to join a support group for people with RA. You can ask your rheumatologist whether there’s an RA support group near you. You can also check out where to find RA support on the web.
Taking control of your treatment may also help you cope. Talk to your doctor about finding ways to manage your symptoms and pain.
Finally, don’t forget to be aware of your limits. It’s important to stay as active as possible, but pushing yourself too hard can cause more fatigue and damage. Rest when you need to and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Taking care of yourself now can help to keep you healthier in the future.