Open communication with your rheumatoid arthritis doctor is essential. Here's how to build a healing relationship.
One of the first steps in the RA healing process is to establish a satisfying partnership with each member of your healthcare team—and especially with your rheumatologist.
Base these partnerships on a back-and-forth flow of information: You talk about how you're feeling and what you want out of treatment. And when your doctor talks to you about treatment options or lifestyle changes to consider, your job is to listen carefully and then ask questions.
In 2002, Lyn S., now in her mid-40s, a successful chief financial officer in Dallas, was baffled by the onset of pain and stiffness across her body. "I had episodes during which I couldn't lift my arm," says the married mother of a teenage daughter. This was followed by severe foot pain and months of steroid injections in her toe joints. Then the pain spread to her hands.
The road to recovery
In September 2007, Lyn was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Having a diagnosis meant she could work with doctors to find the right treatment. However, she had an uphill climb. "One of my lowest points was when my parents came over and vacuumed my floors," she says. "You ask yourself, 'What does the rest of my life hold?'"
Lyn chose to fight her RA. She began working closely with her rheumatologist to find a treatment that would help. "It required some trial and error to find the right medications," she says. "But today I feel great."
In part, Lyn credits her success to the relationship she has developed with her rheumatologist. "He takes my concerns seriously," she says. "I told him that I love him because he gave me back my life, and he just smiled."
Finding the right doctor
The type of partnership that Lyn describes is what experts call a healing relationship—one in which doctor and patient work together. Each contributes knowledge and commitment to the task of helping the patient get well.
A healing relationship requires frank communication, and mutual trust and respect. And while healing relationships don't cure arthritis, they can reduce some patients' suffering and help them lead more normal and fulfilling lives than would otherwise be possible.
"Patients have an essential role to play in their diagnosis and treatment," says John Scott, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the department of family medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. "In fact," he adds, "sometimes it's the patient's determination to be a partner that helps create a healing relationship that wouldn't otherwise develop."
What you can do to heal
Dr. Scott, who has studied healing relationships, says patients should communicate with their doctors in whatever ways are most comfortable, whether that means using humor or a more businesslike, stick-to-the-facts style.
Whichever is best for you, it's important to let your doctor know how RA affects your life. For example, if you have difficulty walking a short distance, you may want to tell your doctor that your goal is to work up to a mile. Then the two of you can determine how long that should take and what treatments could help.
It's also smart to keep track of your symptoms between visits. Make a chart each month to note on which days symptoms occur and how severe they are. This will give your doctor a fuller picture of how you are responding to your treatment, and whether you should make any changes in your medication.
Help your doctor understand how much medical information you can digest. Some people want to learn everything they can about their condition; others are happier knowing less. Let your doctor know what you realistically can handle.