Before your first visit with a rheumatologist, put together a detailed log of your symptoms. It also helps to bring a list of your medications and write down questions you want to ask, such as about tests and treatment options.

If you’re living with a rheumatic condition — such as ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout, lupus, or others — you may need to visit a rheumatologist.

A rheumatologist is an arthritis specialist who can help treat your condition. Rheumatologists have had specific training in diseases that affect the joints, muscles, and bones, including degenerative rheumatic disorders and autoimmune disorders.

To help your doctor find the right treatment plan and ensure it works for you, you can take some time to prepare for your appointment. Here are some tips to help you get ready for your rheumatologist visit.

Your first visit may be longer than your follow-up visits. You can expect it to last about an hour. Your doctor will want to do a thorough examination and talk with you about all of your symptoms.


Many of these tools won’t be available if you’re using telehealth services, so speak with your doctor about how they prefer to see you for your visit.

If you’re doing a telehealth session, make sure you have a stable internet connection and your medical information available to review.

Physical examination

You can expect a physical exam to assess your general health and any swelling or other symptoms that can indicate inflammation in your joints and other areas.

Common symptoms include:

  • growths of atypical tissue (nodules)
  • rashes
  • redness
  • swelling
  • warmth

Your doctor may ask you to move or stretch in certain ways to test for flexibility and mobility. If you feel any pain, let them know immediately.

Lab testing

Your doctor may order lab tests, including urine, blood, or joint fluid tests, to test for factors, antibodies, and genetic markers of specific conditions.

This may include:

Imaging tests

Your doctor may order imaging tests, such as X-rays or CT and MRI scans, to achieve a correct diagnosis or gain more insight into your condition and its progress.

Diagnosis and a treatment plan

You may not get a diagnosis right away, and you should be aware that many autoimmune disorders may take years to evolve fully.

In many instances, symptomatic treatment is started before a doctor can make a definitive diagnosis.

If your doctor can make a working diagnosis, you will likely return for more visits to determine a final diagnosis and begin a treatment plan to meet your needs.

This could include:

  • Medications: These could include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, corticosteroids, or biologic response modifiers (aka biologics).
  • Exercise, physical therapy, or occupational therapy: Remaining active and moving muscles and joints are often key to effective treatment. Your doctor may refer you to specialists in these areas.
  • Lifestyle changes: Your treatment plan might include dietary adjustments, weight management, pain management, mental health support, and other wellness goals.

It’s important to remember that you’re establishing a long-term relationship with your doctor. Many conditions, even when managed well, may be long lasting.

Keep a log of your symptoms

Your rheumatologist can’t treat your condition without knowing how you feel. If you aren’t already recording your symptoms, you might consider starting a dedicated journal to share with your doctor.

In it, you could answer questions like:

  • Which joints hurt?
  • When did the pain start? What were you doing when it started?
  • What does it feel like — sharp, dull, throbbing, achy, tender?
  • How severe is the pain on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • How has it changed over the last few days or weeks?
  • How does the pain affect your daily routine?
  • Is it worse when you get up in the morning?
  • Does anything help the pain, such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication or exercise?
  • Do you have any other symptoms that may seem related?
  • Do you know of anyone else in your family living with arthritis, autoimmune diseases, or other rheumatoid conditions?

Your answers to these questions can help your doctor develop a more targeted treatment plan for you.

Make a list of questions for your doctor

Make the most of your time with your rheumatologist by compiling a list of questions beforehand. Carry around a small notebook or use your smartphone’s notepad to jot down questions as you think of them.

You might find it beneficial to ask:

  • Do you think I’m receiving the best treatment for my symptoms?
  • What kinds of improvements should I expect to see with my treatment?
  • What other treatment options are available?
  • What do you plan to do if I don’t see any improvement or if my symptoms get worse?
  • How long should I stay on this medication?
  • What should I do if I have side effects from my treatment?
  • What can I do if I have trouble sleeping through the night?
  • Could I benefit from seeing any other healthcare professionals, like a physical therapist, pain management specialist, or nutritionist?
  • Could I benefit from any clinical trials for new treatments?

Bring a list of your medications

Keep a running list of all the OTC and prescription drugs you take. This includes any medications you take to treat other conditions, as well as any herbal supplements or vitamins.

Be sure to note the following about each:

  • dosage
  • method (e.g., injectable, liquid, pill)
  • frequency (e.g., once daily, once a week, as needed)
  • time of day (e.g., morning, midday, night)

You could also put all the medications in a bag and bring them with you to your appointment, but a detailed list with dosages will take less time for your doctor to review.

Knowing exactly which medications you take will help your doctor make changes to your regimen or add a new prescription if you need it.

Your doctor can see immediately if, for example, a new medication might interact with something you already take or if you’re taking too high a dose.

Recruit a friend or family member

You might ask a partner, trusted friend, or family member to attend your appointment with you. They can take notes so you can stay focused on the conversation with your doctor.

They can also remind you of any questions you’ve forgotten to ask or issues you were planning to bring up. You’ll also have a supportive person to champion you if needed.

Find out which tests you need

Your doctor might use imaging tests like an X-ray or MRI scan to look for changes in your bones or joints.

For some of these tests, you might need to prepare by not eating or drinking for several hours or by removing anything containing metal, such as hearing aids or dentures.

Make sure you know what you need to do to prepare at least a few days before your test.

Expand your treatment discussion

Because of time constraints, your doctor might focus your appointment on medical therapies. Yet lifestyle changes can also help you manage the symptoms of your condition.

If you haven’t covered these topics yet with your doctor, bring them up at your next appointment:

  • how often you should exercise and what types of workouts are best and safest for you
  • whether you should use heat or cold therapy or both, and if so, how often
  • if you smoke, what methods you can try to help you cut back or quit
  • how to reach or maintain a healthy weight for your body, if recommended by your doctor
  • how to get emotional and community support if you need it

Living with a chronic condition can be as hard on your mind as it is on your body. It’s important to also take care of your emotional state. If your rheumatologist can’t address your mental health needs, ask for a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor.

Living with a rheumatic disorder can be hard, but it can also be successfully managed with the right treatment. Being prepared and helping your rheumatologist make the most of their time with you is key to the best outlook.

How to find a rheumatologist

Your primary care doctor can refer you to a rheumatologist, or you can find one locally online. If you have insurance, check with your provider about referral requirements. Ask about telehealth services, languages spoken, credentials, and what your plan covers.

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