Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can sometimes feel like a full-time job. It's important to remember that you can't gain control of it all by yourself. It's a complicated condition that can affect your whole life; it needs a coordinated approach.
Luckily, you don't have to do it alone. You can build a "dream team" of professional health care providers who are trained to help you. Creating a coordinated medical team gives you the best chance to manage rheumatoid arthritis. Who should you look for to be on your team? There are several key players you should turn to.
Most people think of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) as a disease that causes joint pain. But if you have RA, you know that fatigue and weakness can exact their toll as well.
"RA is actually much more than a joint disease," says M. Elaine Husni, MD, MPH. Husni is vice chair of rheumatology and director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center at the Cleveland Clinic. "RA is a systemic [body-wide] inflammatory disease," she explains. "That's why you get the other, what we call "constitutional," symptoms...
A rheumatologist is a medical doctor with specialized training in rheumatology (joint disease). Your rheumatologist is at the center of your RA treatment team.
Visiting your rheumatologist regularly is the best thing you can do to get control of your rheumatoid arthritis. This is the person who will monitor your disease and its progression and make changes to your treatment plan.
Your Primary Care Doctor
You may also see a primary care or "regular" doctor, who will manage any other medical problems you may have. Primary care also includes general check-ups and preventive health maintenance (like mammograms or cholesterol checks).
Your Physical Therapist
Physical therapists are skilled at identifying muscle groups and joints that need improvement. They can assess your level of fitness and ability and design an exercise plan to help you build strength and flexibility where you need it most. Since exercise is key to keeping joints healthy, make sure you don't keep your physical therapist on the sidelines.
Your Occupational Therapist
Occupational therapists help you maintain independence. If rheumatoid arthritis starts to slow you down, or if daily tasks become difficult, a visit with an occupational therapist will probably help. Occupational therapists have a playbook of "work-arounds" to let you continue to live your own way. They can also provide or recommend an arsenal of assistive devices that will smooth out the rough spots in your daily routine.
Your Psychologist, Psychiatrist, or Social Worker
Coping with rheumatoid arthritis is something that can be learned. Many people need extra support with the psychological and emotional challenges it brings. These professionals specialize in the more human and emotional aspects of managing your condition:
Social workers can help you navigate the health care system; provide counseling during tough times; and help you find community or government resources to get the care and support you deserve.
Psychologists and psychiatrists provide counseling, psychotherapy, or stress management therapy. Psychiatrists can also prescribe medication, such as antidepressants, if needed.
Your Orthopedic Surgeon
Surgical therapy for rheumatoid arthritis has improved greatly over the past decades. There is a variety of surgical procedures that can help you keep good use of your joints for as long as possible. If you feel like your current treatment isn't working, ask your rheumatologist if surgery is a reasonable option.