Importance of Following Your Treatment Plan

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Fast Facts

  • The goal of your treatment plan is to prevent your disease from getting worse and to restore good physical function.
  • By following your treatment plan, making adjustments with your rheumatologist when necessary, and asking questions about your ongoing care, you increase your chances of success.

Once your rheumatologist confirms your diagnosis, the next step is to create a rheumatic disease treatment plan for your condition. You and your rheumatologist will work together to create this plan, so you are included in all decisions about your own care. The American College of Rheumatology has created guidelines for treating and managing various rheumatic diseases, so your rheumatologist will use these guidelines to help create your plan, but your involvement means you have a greater chance of success.

What is a Treatment Plan?

A rheumatic disease treatment plan is a summary of the ways you and your doctor will treat your arthritis or rheumatic disease. A treatment plan may be a written or electronic document, or simply a path you and your rheumatology provider will follow. Treatment plans usually include:

  • Medications to treat symptoms of your rheumatic disease, such as pain or inflammation, plus medication dosages and how often you take the drugs
  • Self-management strategies to keep your body healthy and strong, such as getting regular physical activity, quitting smoking, curbing alcohol use, eating a healthy diet and controlling stress
  • Measurable targets to reach to determine that your disease is well controlled, such as measures of inflammatory proteins in your blood, signs of joint damage on X-rays, or range of motion and strength in your joints
  • Measurable targets to reach to determine that you are coping well physically and emotionally, such as being able to enjoy family activities or continue working in your job

You and your rheumatologists will agree on everything in your treatment plan, and it is important for you to follow the treatment plan so you feel better and keep your rheumatic disease under control. It is also important to let your rheumatologist know when the treatment plan is not working for you. This should be done at your regular office visit. Remember you are part of this plan so make sure you bring notes to help you remember how the plan needs to be adjusted.

Consider your lifestyle as you create your treatment plan with your rheumatology provider. Don’t hide anything. If you smoke or drink alcohol, tell your rheumatologist. If you plan on getting pregnant, talk about this with your rheumatology provider. If you travel for work or take care of your children at home, discuss these things with your rheumatologist. Your treatment plan can include strategies to manage your rheumatic disease that take all of these factors into consideration. Ultimately, you and your rheumatologist are partners in your care.

How do You Follow Your Treatment Plan?

First, you must be sure that you understand every item in your treatment plan. If you don’t understand how to take medications as prescribed, or if you don’t know how to get started with an exercise program, ask your rheumatologist or other members of your rheumatology care team, such as a nurse, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, or physical therapist to explain further. Ask them to show you how to use a self-injectable drug at home. Ask them to give you information on arthritis exercise classes in your area or online videos to follow.

Between your appointments with your rheumatologist, make sure you do the following:

  • Take your medications as prescribed, including taking them at the proper times and dosages. Ask your rheumatologist or nurse what to do if you forget to take your medications or if you experience side effects.
  • If you experience signs of an infection, such as a sudden fever, call your rheumatologist’s office or seek emergency care.
  • If you experience possible side effects from your medications, call your rheumatologist’s office or seek emergency care. Ask your rheumatologist what signs may indicate a drug reaction.
  • If other doctors for other health conditions prescribe you any medications, let your rheumatologist know.
  • If you lose your access to your medications through an unexpected gap in or loss of insurance coverage, call your rheumatologist’s office immediately for help.
  • Follow a healthy diet and manage your weight. Ask your rheumatologist or nurse for guidance or resources, such as diet plans or local weight-loss support groups. Excess weight can put strain on weakened joints and lead to other health problems like type-2 diabetes or heart disease.
  • Get regular, joint-friendly physical activity. Keeping your joints strong, healthy and flexible is important if you have a rheumatic disease. Daily range-of-motion stretches and weight-bearing exercises like walking can help you feel better and restore function. Ask your rheumatologist, nurse, or physical therapist for more information or resources, like local exercise classes or online videos to follow.
  • Keep your stress under control as much as possible. Find healthy ways to relieve stress, such as taking a walk in the park or practicing yoga.
  • Keep track of how you feel each day. Write down notes or keep a journal that records if you have any pain or stiffness, if you feel tired or can’t grip tools, or if you are feeling energized. This information will help your rheumatologist decide if your treatment plan is working.

Ask, Be Aware and Share!

At your rheumatology office visits, bring up any questions or concerns you have about following your treatment plan. You should learn as much as you can about your disease, what side effects or drug interactions may be serious, and what you can do on your own to feel better.

If you don’t understand how to take your medications or any part of treatment plan, ask for guidance. If you are having any problems, such as remembering to take your medication or struggling to follow your treatment plan, bring those issues up with your rheumatologist. He or she can make adjustments to your treatment plan can be made if needed.

Be aware of all the possible side effects of your drugs. Ask your rheumatology provider when it’s important to call the office or seek emergency care, and when to simply curb activities and get more rest. Don’t wait until your next office visit to tell your rheumatologist you’ve stopped taking your medication because of unpleasant side effects. Call your rheumatologist’s office and let them know you are having difficulty with your medications. There may be other medications that will help.

If you are trying to get pregnant or conceive a child with your partner, talk to your rheumatologist first. Some medications for rheumatic diseases may cause birth defects in unborn children. Talk about your plan to conceive, and your rheumatologist can alter your treatment plan and medications. If you have an unplanned pregnancy, contact your rheumatologist right away.

Updated December 2020 by Robert W. Richardson, PT, FAPTA, and reviewed by the American College of Rheumatology Communications and Marketing Committee.

This information is provided for general education only. Individuals should consult a qualified health care provider for professional medical advice, diagnosis and treatment of a medical or health condition.

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