Your RA Healthcare Team, Explained

Learn how different healthcare providers can help you manage the challenges of living with rheumatoid arthritis.

physical therapist with patient

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a condition that may require treatment from a number of healthcare providers—everyone from specialists to help you learn how to move better to social workers who can help you navigate the substantial paperwork that often accompanies managing a chronic health condition. In addition to the healthcare providers listed below, remember that you are also a part of your healthcare team, and that you need to take an active role in managing your health.

Primary care physician

A primary care physician may be an internist or a family doctor, sometimes called a general practitioner. They can treat a wide variety of health conditions. For many patients, a primary care physician is the first healthcare provider to identify symptoms of RA and write a referral to a rheumatologist.

Your primary care physician may help you treat health issues related to RA. For example, people who have RA—or any other type of inflammatory autoimmune arthritis, like psoriatic arthritis—have an increased risk of several other health issues, including cardiovascular disease, infections and complications from the flu. Your primary care physician may help you treat these conditions and may help you take preventive measures to protect your overall health, such as staying up to date on vaccinations, losing weight or quitting smoking.

Rheumatologist

Rheumatologists are internists who specialize in the treatment of autoimmune diseases and musculoskeletal diseases. In addition to treating RA, a rheumatologist would also treat conditions like psoriatic arthritis, osteoarthritis and gout (to name just a few). A rheumatologist is likely who your primary care physician would refer you to if you were experiencing chronic joint pain or back pain, or if you had symptoms of a progressive inflammatory disease.

Nurse

Nurses are essential to your RA healthcare team. They can perform a wide variety of tasks, such as taking your medical history, evaluating your symptoms, administering tests and overseeing treatment. Nurses can also educate you and family members about the condition and coordinate treatment with other members of your healthcare team.

Physical therapist

Physical therapists provide instruction and a safe environment for exercise, which is essential to help you move better, maintain or improve range of motion and reduce pain and stiffness. In addition to exercise, a physical therapist may use hot and cold treatments, water therapy, ultrasound and relaxation techniques to help you manage arthritis symptoms and flare-ups. A physical therapist can also teach you ways to perform everyday tasks without putting unnecessary stress on your joints.

Occupational therapist

RA can make everyday activities difficult. Going to work, doing simple chores, preparing meals, shopping at the store and attending social events may all be complicated by the condition. Occupational therapists help you evaluate the things that have become a challenge and come up with a plan to address them. This can include making modifications around the home, learning new skills and using medical aids such as splints or supports to help you get around. Their goal is to enable you to participate safely in the activities that are important to you.

Dietitian or nutritionist

A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help you change your diet, if necessary, and make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to stay healthy. If you are overweight, a dietitian can help you lose the extra weight that is putting additional pressure on your joints.

Social worker

Arthritis can take a toll on your mental health as well as your physical health. A social worker can help you navigate the healthcare system, find support for the emotional challenges of RA and offer guidance on the financial aspects of ongoing healthcare.

Article sources open article sources

JR O’Dell, JB Imoboden, LD Miller. CURRENT Diagnosis and Treatment: Rheumatology, 3e. USA, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2013.
UpToDate.com. “Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis treatment (Beyond the Basics).” Updated February 20, 2020. Accessed September 10, 2020.
American College of Rheumatology. “Role of the Social Worker in the Management of Rheumatic Disease.” 2020. Accessed September 10, 2020.
Don L. Goldenberg, MD. “The Primary Care Provider’s Role in Diagnosing and Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis.” Practical Pain Management. Updated September 26, 2017. Accessed September 10, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. “Rheumatoid Arthritis.” March 1, 2019. Accessed September 10, 2020.
Arthritis Foundation. “Comorbid Conditions in Inflammatory Arthritis.” 2020. Accessed September 10, 2020.
American College of Rheumatology. “What is a Rheumatologist?” Updated June 2018. Accessed September 10, 2020.
Arthritis Foundation. “Heat Therapy Helps Relax Stiff Joints.” 2020. Accessed September 10, 2020.
American College of Rheumatology. “Role of the Occupational Therapist in the Management of Rheumatic Disease.” 2020. Accessed September 10, 2020.
Arthritis Foundation. “Occupational Therapy for Arthritis.” 2020. Accessed September 10, 2020.

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