June 3, 2020

3 Tips to Make The Most of Your First Rheumatology Appointment

A little preparation goes a long way

doctor checking swelling in throat and glands

You just scheduled your first rheumatology appointment — now what? It could seem like a daunting appointment. But with a little preparation, you’ll be able to get the most out of it.

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“In my many years as a rheumatologist, I’ve seen patients with a variety of symptoms, including aches and pains,” says rheumatologist Howard R. Smith, MD. “Arthritis may be a symptom of a number of different connective tissue diseases since there are more than 100 types of arthritis. My job is to identify which type of arthritis the patient has and to begin appropriate treatment.”

Your rheumatologist will perform a thorough examination to start. Expect that your first appointment will be an hour or longer — and much of this time is spent talking about your symptoms.

“A thorough examination helps your rheumatologist make a diagnosis so that they may begin to treat you as soon as possible,” explains Dr. Smith. “Especially because many rheumatologic conditions become more difficult to treat over time and respond best to treatment in the early stages.”

However, it’s important to note that these diseases may change or evolve and your rheumatologist may need to see you more than once to make a definite diagnosis.

“The first visit will include a physical exam in which your rheumatologist will search for joint swelling or nodules that may indicate inflammation,” says Dr. Smith. “Lab tests, such as X-rays and blood work, may also supply pieces of the puzzle to assist your rheumatologist in arriving at your diagnosis.”

To help you make the most of a first appointment, follow these three simple tips:

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Tip #1: Know your symptoms

The more you have studied your own symptoms, the more you can help your doctor diagnose your condition. Consider keeping notes in advance of your appointment to bring along.

Ideally, your notes will include:

  • ​Description of pain (dull, stabbing, throbbing).
  • Where in the body you feel pain (muscles or joints).
  • Time of day (if applicable) or days when pain was better or worse. (When does the pain start and how does it progress? Dates and times the pain started and stopped?)
  • Overall length of time you’ve had symptoms.
  • Any other symptoms besides joint, muscle or bone pain that seem connected.
  • Your ideas about what might be causing the problem. (Does any particular physical activity, stress or food worsen your symptoms?)
  • Any medication you’re taking and medication allergies.

Alongside any notes that you take about your symptoms, consider bringing any previous X-rays, ultrasounds or MRIs to give to your doctor.

Tip #2: Ask questions

During your appointment, it can be easy to forget some of your questions or to ask those that aren’t as important to you as others you meant to ask. One of the best ways to handle this? Write down your questions before your appointment and put them in order of priority.

“Of course, if you forget, you can always call the office later, but it is best to have your important questions answered in person,” says Dr. Smith.

Common questions include:

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  1. When I’m in pain, should I use the joint/muscle or rest it?
  2. How do I treat the pain. (Ice? Heat? Pain relievers?)
  3. I wake up aching. Should I get a softer mattress? Are there other things I can do to wake up feeling better?
  4. Should I change my diet (or avoid hot or spicy foods?)
  5. Are there vitamins or supplements I could take to help the inflammation?
  6. If I need special medication, will I have to take these for the rest of my life or is it possible to get better?
  7. Is it OK to become pregnant with this condition? Are there medications that are safe to take during pregnancy?

Tip #3: Listen closely

It can be overwhelming when a doctor is offering advice about a new diagnosis.

“I notice that when patients bring a notebook or journal, they seem to better capture our conversation,” explains Dr. Smith. “If you bring notes about your symptoms, you can use that same notebook to take notes about what your doctor advises.”

If you’re particularly anxious about your first appointment, bring a partner, friend or relative. They’ll help you remember what your doctor explained and be your advocate.

Following these tips can help you make the most of that first important appointment with your rheumatologist — and help you start your path toward treatment.

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