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10 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Rheumatoid Arthritis

The best way to get optimal care for rheumatoid arthritis is through open communication with your doctor. Here are some questions to get the conversation started.

Aching, dull, and grinding pain and stiffness in your hips, fingers, or knees is one patient’s description of what rheumatoid arthritis (RA) feels like. For some, the burning pain of RA can come on suddenly. You might not know why your joints are aching, but you realize you must see a doctor.

RA is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your joints, causing damaging inflammation. Approximately 1.5 million U.S. adults over age 18 have RA, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — a disease that primarily strikes women during their childbearing years. Although genetics can increase your RA risk, most people with rheumatoid arthritis don’t have a family history. Early aggressive treatment and lifestyle changes can help you manage symptoms and minimize long-term joint damage.

If you believe you might have RA, take these 10 questions with you to your next doctor’s appointment.

1. Do my symptoms indicate that I could have RA?

Alane Miles, a minister in Richmond, Viriginia, was in her early twenties when she began having trouble opening her hands and standing up in the morning. “I had horrible pain,” she says. “In the evening, I couldn’t stand up straight all the way, and [doing so] hurt my knees, hips, hands, and wrists.”

Miles experienced the classic RA symptoms of joint pain and stiffness, especially in the morning. If you have RA, you may also experience fatigue, weight loss, and a low-grade fever. This type of arthritis generally affects the symmetric small joints.

2. If I have rheumatoid arthritis, what will it do to my joints in the long term?

Over time, the lining of the joint, called the synovium, becomes inflamed and can ultimately destroy the joint. Medication and lifestyle changes can improve mobility and even prevent deformity. RA-related joint damage is irreversible.

3. How will you determine if I have RA?

Physicians diagnose rheumatoid arthritis through a patient evaluation that includes a health history and physical, X-rays, and lab tests. There’s no single, definitive diagnostic tool, which, as Miles learned firsthand, can delay an accurate diagnosis.

4. What’s the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a slow, degenerative joint disease, says Jonathan Samuels, MD, associate professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. “Rheumatoid arthritis is much more inflammatory and acts on other organ systems [in addition to the joints].” The incidence of osteoarthritis increases with age, while rheumatoid arthritis usually affects young women.

5. If I have RA, will it cause other health problems?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic inflammatory disease (meaning it affects the whole body), says Brian D. Golden, MD, a clinical associate professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at NYU Langone. And yes, it’s associated with other conditions, including osteoporosis (loss of bone density) and cardiovascular disease.

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