A Rheumatologist Can Help Treat Lupus

Rheumtologists Help Treat Autoimmune Diseases Like Lupus

A doctor talks with a patient.
A doctor talks with a patient.. Caiaimage/Agnieszka Wozniak/Getty Images

If you’ve been diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus or lupus, you already have a good idea of what a rheumatologist is and what she does. If you haven’t encountered this medical specialist yet, chances are you will very soon.

What is a rheumatologist?

When most people hear the word rheumatology, they think rheumatoid arthritis and make the logical leap that a rheumatologist treats diseases of the joints.

She does. But she also diagnoses and treats diseases of the muscles and bones, such as osteoporosis, and a number of autoimmune diseases, such as lupus. A rheumatologist treats more than 100 such diseases, in fact, and many of these diseases involve multiple organ systems and complex differential diagnoses. Treatments can be complicated, and there are usually specific requirements for monitoring therapy.

An autoimmune disease is a disease where the body attacks itself by means of antibodies. One consequence of the body attacking itself is inflammation in areas of the body that aren't injured or damaged. This inflammation can cause a variety of pathological changes, as apparent in diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatologists go through four years of medical school, three years of training in internal medicine or pediatrics, and then top off their education with another two or three years of rheumatology training.

Specifically, rheumatologists are trained to detect and diagnose the cause of swelling and pain. For lupus patients, these are hallmarks of inflammation.

In many cases, the rheumatologist works alongside other physicians -- sometimes sharing and giving advice, other times acting as the principal physician, assisted by a team of skilled professionals, from nurses to social workers.

Who needs to see a rheumatologist?

Everybody has minor muscle and joint aches from time to time. The majority of people with such pain don't need to see a rheumatologist. However, if you are experiencing severe or chronic joint, muscle or bone pain, your primary care physician may refer you to a rheumatologist--especially if he suspects that you are suffering from an autoimmune condition like lupus or knows that you have a family history of autoimmune disease. Please remember that lupus can be a difficult disease for your primary care physician to diagnose. Thus, if you suspect that you may have symptoms of lupus or have family members with this condition, please discuss this information with your primary care physician.

Should your rheumatologist be the principal physician treating your lupus?

After establishing care with a rheumatologist, one decision you may have to make is what medical professional will be your principal physician or point person -- the main point of contact who manages your treatment and monitors your disease.

This physician may be your primary care physician -- family medicine physician or internist -- who you may be most comfortable with and who you feel knows you best. But you might also select a rheumatologist, who can not only manage the treatment of your autoimmune disease, but may be able to serve as your primary care physician as well.

Sources:

What is a Rheumatologist? American College of Rheumatology. February 2008.

A Rheumatologist as Principal Care Physician Minnesota Lupus News, October - November 1998 Lupus Foundation of Minnesota.

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