If you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the earlier and more aggressively you treat it, the better your chances of slowing its progression and reducing your joint pain. There are a number of treatments for RA. It can be confusing to understand how each drug works, as well as the benefits and risks of each drug. Here are nine questions to ask your doctor to help you find the most effective treatment.
Why are you recommending this treatment for me? No doctor can predict how any medicine or other treatment is going to work for you. With RA treatments, it's often a matter of trial and error. Ask your doctor why he is recommending a particular treatment for you at this stage of your disease and how he feels it will help.
What are the benefits and the risks? When choosing any treatment, it's important to weigh the benefits you hope to achieve against the possible risks. The benefits should be greater than the risks for you to pick a particular treatment option. Ask what percentage of people benefit from the treatment your doctor is recommending and how many suffer serious side effects from it.
What are the possible side effects of the treatment you're recommending? Every drug has potential side effects. Even over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs can cause stomach upset and increased risk of bleeding. Ask your doctor to outline the common side effects of the recommended treatment and what you can do to lower the risks. Would it help if you took the medication with food or if you took it at a specific time of day? Be sure to address long-term risks, especially those that can be more severe, such as intestinal bleeding.
What should I do if I experience side effects? Some side effects can be mild while others can be life threatening. Ask your doctor what side effects you should watch out for and which ones are the most serious. Also, ask for guidelines on how long you should wait before calling your doctor once you experience side effects. In particular, under what conditions, if any, you should stop taking your medication.
How long will it take the treatment to work? Many people see improvement with some RA treatments immediately. Other RA treatments may take several weeks. Your doctor should be able to give you a time frame for feeling relief. If the treatment isn't working within a reasonable amount of time, you and your doctor may want to try another, more aggressive treatment.
Would surgery help? Thanks to new medications and more aggressive treatments, doctors are steering away from surgery for RA. However, surgery is still a viable treatment option for some people. Surgical procedures for RA range from removal of the lining of the affected joint to total joint replacement. If your doctor suggests you might be a candidate for surgery, ask why and what it might do for you. For instance, find out whether a hip or knee replacement will relieve your pain and allow you to move around easier.
Are there alternative treatments to consider? Some people with RA find mind-body therapies and dietary supplements beneficial. Most often they are taken in addition to conventional RA treatments rather than in place of them. Some doctors don't discuss alternative treatments unless you ask. If you're interested, explore your options with your doctor or contact a healthcare professional trained in complementary and alternative medicine for RA. If you decide to take supplements, check in with your rheumatologist to be sure the supplements won't lead to negative interactions with the drugs you're currently taking.
What if I do nothing? In most cases, if you don't treat RA early, it can get worse and you may suffer permanent joint damage sooner. It's not likely that your doctor will recommend a wait-and-see approach. But ask about it—the discussion may help reassure you that you are doing the right thing by undergoing treatment.
Is it time for me to consider biologics? Biologics are a relatively new class of drugs that have been developed to treat RA. They are often recommended for patients who don't respond to conventional treatments. Unlike other medications you may be taking, biologics are not available in pill form; they must be injected or given intravenously. Biologic treatments can be quite costly, and there is the chance of more serious side effects. Ask your doctor whether you are a candidate for biologics and how to weigh the risks and benefits.