Arthritis is a complicated disease that affects many areas of the body. Knowing how to work with different health care specialists can improve your care and improve your quality of life.

Arthritis can make even simple tasks -- walking, typing, cutting food, brushing teeth, climbing stairs -- uncomfortable or impossible. No matter what form of arthritis you have, your role as part of your health care team can make the difference in how well you function with pain, stiffness or inflammation.

What's your role? To communicate well, stay organized and, most important, have a take-charge attitude.

"You have to be as knowledgeable, plugged in and persistent as you can," says W. Hayes Wilson, M.D., a rheumatologist in private practice in Atlanta and spokesperson for the Arthritis Foundation. "Ultimately, you're the person who should have the most control on your health care team. Along with that control comes responsibility."

Working with the Team

In addition to seeing your health care provider, you may be referred to a rheumatologist (a specialist in arthritis care), a physical or occupational therapist, or an orthopedic surgeon, depending on how severe your arthritis is. Some less common forms of arthritis can affect nearly any organ or system in the body, so the team also could include a cardiologist, neurologist or other specialist.

"Personally, I think it's best to see the doctor as the coach and yourself as the quarterback," adds Dr. Wilson. "The coach sends in plays to you. It's your option to either call the play or choose your own call."

Dr. Wilson offers this advice for before, during and after a visit with any member of your team.

Before the Visit

  • Get organized. "Coming up with a good treatment plan depends on the information the patient brings to me," explains Dr. Wilson.

  • List all your medications. "Sometimes I'll ask people what they're currently taking, and they'll say, 'I take five pills -- a green one, a blue one, an orange one, a long one and a round one.' Unfortunately, that doesn't help much," says Dr. Wilson. Before your visit, make a list of all your medication names, how much of each you're taking and how often. Even better, put all the labeled medication containers in a bag and take them with you.

  • Provide a record of your health history. Be sure your doctor or physical therapist knows about that back surgery you had four years ago, for example.

  • Coordinate with team members. For instance, if your primary care physician tells you he or she will send your lab work to your rheumatologist before your next visit, don't assume it will happen. Call the rheumatologist's office the day before your visit to confirm the information was received. Any way you can facilitate your care will help in the end.

During the Visit

  • Be engaged, open, honest and forthright. "Don't withhold any information that may help your doctor come up with a better diagnosis or treatment," says Dr. Wilson. "Sometimes patients tell me they're not having any pain, and I'll ask, 'Then why did you come?' They'll explain that they actually do have pain but didn't want to complain or waste my time. That's not really helpful. Go ahead and tell your doctor what's bothering you. Then both of you can try to come up with solutions."

  • If you don't understand something, ask. Find out why a certain treatment is recommended, and what to do if problems occur. When you're given a recommendation, repeat it back to the health care provider in your own words.

  • Make note of any "home-run" medications. If a certain drug really helped ease your pain or stiffness in the past, let your physician know about it now.

  • Point out any drug allergies. If a certain medication once made you very ill, you don't want to take it again.

After the Visit

  • Follow any treatment advice. Have the appropriate lab work done. Take medications just as they're prescribed unless you experienced a dangerous side effect -- then stop the medication and call the prescribing doctor. Don't change your treatment program on your own without good reason, such as serious side effects. Return for follow-up visits. "Every once in a while someone cancels an appointment and doesn't return for six months or a year," says Dr. Wilson. "That's really dangerous. If you're on any kind of maintenance medications, you really need to be monitored."

  • Communicate any questions or problems. Doing so right away can keep simple problems from becoming complex.

Medical Reviewer: [Akin, Louise RN, BSN, Shmerling, Robert H. MD] Last Annual Review Date: 2008-02-18T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: © Health Ink & Vitality Communications

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Arthritis accounts for 39 million doctor visits each year and more than 500,000 trips to the hospital.