Are you or someone you know suffering from stiffness, pain, and swelling in the joints? Especially in the hands, feet, and knees? What about red and warm joints? If these symptoms sound familiar, it might be time to speak with a doctor about rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
What kind of doctor? You should consider seeing a rheumatologist. If you think you might have RA or have already been diagnosed with this form of autoimmune arthritis, adding a rheumatologist to your healthcare team is a great first step.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis? RA is a long-term condition that happens when the body’s self defense (or immune) system starts attacking itself. Unfortunately, the target is the joints, the linings of the joints, and it can also affect organs of the body. We don’t know exactly why the body does this, but we do know that RA is the most common form of autoimmune arthritis. It affects about 1.5 million adults in the United States and about 69% of the people who develop the disease are women. The greatest number of cases of rheumatoid arthritis tend to be in people between the ages of 65 and 74. Rheumatologists are specialists in diseases that affect the joints and connective tissue. As experts in diseases like RA, rheumatologists can help ensure people are properly diagnosed and receive the correct form of treatment. This is important because when it comes to RA, the earlier you can identify the condition and begin to manage it, the more likely you are to prevent any permanent damage to joints.
So what makes rheumatologists experts when it comes these conditions?
- They have 2 to 3 years of specialized training in rheumatology after the training that is required to be a general physician
- They have extensive knowledge about identifying and diagnosing RA and other forms of these often complex rheumatic conditions
- They know the medications used to treat RA, the potential side effects of each, and can identify the best options for each patient
- Once an appropriate treatment is chosen, they will be very familiar with how to monitor your disease and how to check for side effects of your medications
- And they are familiar with how RA and other rheumatic diseases may affect different parts of the body and the long-term consequences of the disease
To make the most out of an initial appointment with your rheumatologist, you should be sure to know “your story.” When did the symptoms begin? What makes them better or worse? Does this problem last for 30 minutes or 3 hours? Have you taken any medicine (prescribed, over-the-counter, or herbal/complementary) to treat your symptoms? Being prepared to answer questions such as these can help your rheumatologist evaluate your condition and find the right diagnosis for you.
And if you are diagnosed with RA—or have been in the past—even though there isn’t currently a cure, be sure to talk with your rheumatologist about how you can reduce the pain, swelling and other symptoms associated with the disease.
Andrew Koenig, D.O., F.A.C.R., is a rheumatologist and the Inflammation/Immunology Group Lead for North America Medical Affairs at Pfizer, Inc.
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- 5. 10 Steps For Living Well With Arthritis information booklet. Arthritis Australia 2015.