How to See a Doctor for Arthritis (Online)

Arthritis is characterized by tenderness or swelling of one or more joints, which usually gets worse with age. There are multiple types of arthritis. The two most common are rheumatoid arthritis (where the body attacks its own joints) and osteoarthritis (where cartilage at the joints has started to break down). (Learn More — What Is Arthritis?)

Getting arthritis diagnosed and treated via telemedicine can be tough, as generally a video call alone will not be enough to allow a doctor to definitively diagnose you. However, telemedicine can still help.

If you live in a rural area, telemedicine may allow you to get a specialist’s help while only requiring that you visit a local clinic or hospital. Additionally, you may be able to get some follow-up care from home, depending on your condition. (Learn More — Can an Online Doctor Diagnosis and Treat Arthritis?)

Finding a quality online doctor is primarily a matter of locating a respected online telemedicine service that can operate in your state. Make sure to search the internet for reviews and information on any problems they’ve had in the past. Then, contact them to make sure they can meet your needs. (Learn More — How to Find a Quality Online Doctor)

There are a number of medications a doctor might prescribe for arthritis, depending on the severity of your symptoms and the type of arthritis you are suffering from.

At the lowest levels of severity, it may be suggested that you just try OTC pain medication. For greater severity, more serious pain relief medications and drugs intended to reduce inflammation and other symptoms may be prescribed.

In some cases, surgery or physical therapy might be recommended. (Learn More — Arthritis Treatments)

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis involves sensitivity or swelling of one or more joints. It generally gets worse with age. The condition can be painful and even debilitating, especially to those who work or engage in hobbies that are physically demanding.

There are multiple types of arthritis, but the most common are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the joints. With osteoarthritis, cartilage around the joints has started to deteriorate.

At its most extreme, arthritis can be crippling and even cause joints to deform. Considering its ability to hamper mobility and the limited availability of specialists in the field, many patients wonder if online (telemedicine) treatment may be available to address their needs.

Can an Online Doctor Diagnosis and Treat Arthritis?

While some of the testing required to diagnosis arthritis properly can potentially be done over video call, properly figuring out the nature of someone’s arthritis usually requires testing that cannot be done at home without a professional in the room and some prohibitively expensive medical equipment. As a result, an in-person visit is usually required to accurately diagnose arthritis.

This is not to say there is no way for telemedicine (where a doctor helps a patient at a distance via telecommunications) cannot sometimes make things easier for those struggling with arthritis.

Some patients are now able to contact a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in rheumatic diseases, at a distance while at a small clinic or local hospital This can be a major benefit to some people, as rheumatology is a field with high demand right now, and there are some areas without any local rheumatologists.

The specialist can then direct another licensed doctor (called a presenter) to perform the necessary examinations and tests to properly diagnose what might be wrong with the patient.

Once the nature of the condition is determined, not every step of treatment and follow-up will require such an in-depth process. Often, just talking or video chatting with a rheumatologist or similar specialist will be enough.

How to Find a Quality Online Doctor

There is a great deal to consider when determining whether telemedicine is the best route for you. While telemedicine done right is generally better than no help at all, it may not be as good as in-person visits for some conditions.

The requirements to properly diagnose arthritis are a bit complex, so confirm with any telehealth or telemedicine provider that they are equipped to meet your needs. You need to make sure their service can provide care in your state.

Telemedicine doctors still need to be licensed in areas they will be treating patients remotely. Some states also have laws limiting what kind of care can be provided via telemedicine.

Read through reviews, and try to find any information on controversies or legal issues. This can help you to at least roughly determine the quality of the service. Any serious ethical or legal violations should be a major red flag, and you should take any reviews directly on their site with a grain of salt.

To use a telehealth service, you will need a relatively good internet connection and the ability to make a video call. You will also need to make sure your insurance will cover the service you’ve chosen unless you intend to pay out of pocket.

Most telehealth services provide the specifics on their website and likely have ways to call them for any clarification you need. Ask if you will need to coordinate with any local doctors to have them be presenters.

Arthritis Treatments

There are multiple medications that may be prescribed to you for arthritis. Some are primarily just for pain, while others may help to alleviate other symptoms and reduce the wear and tear on the joints.

  • Painkillers: Arthritis can be painful and may warrant the use of anything from OTC painkillers like Tylenol all the way to serious opioid painkillers such as tramadol (Ultram, ConZip) or oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone).

    As with all pain relief, your doctor will generally try and find the mildest medication that works for you, as prescription painkillers (especially opioids) can be habit-forming and prone to abuse.
  • NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help with both pain and inflammation. Some of the most common NSAIDs are OTC, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen (Aleve).

    NSAIDs can increase your risk of stroke and heart attack. They may cause stomach irritation.
  • Counterirritants: Counterirritants work in an interesting way, essentially helping to “distract” your body from one irritation or pain, such as joint pain, with a lesser one. This can be done with gels or creams made from capsaicin (the chemical that makes peppers spicy) or menthol, which are then applied to an affected joint.
  • DMARDs: Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are specifically for rheumatoid arthritis. They stop or reduce your immune system’s attacks on your affected joints.

    DMARDs include hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) and methotrexate (Trexall, Rasuvo).
  • Biologic response modifiers: Often used in conjunction with DMARDs, these drugs are genetically engineered to target molecules involved in your body’s immune response. This can reduce inflammation, such as with the drugs IL-1 and IL-6.

    One common way to reduce inflammation is by inhibiting tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a protein in the body that is key to the inflammation processes. While inflammation is sometimes healthy, for people with rheumatoid arthritis, those systems essentially go haywire and cause a number of problems.
  • Corticosteroids: These drugs suppress the immune system and can reduce inflammation. For arthritis, they are either taken orally or injected directly into the problem area.

    Due to the fact that they suppress the immune system, which can also get weaker as people get older or suffer from other medical conditions, doctors must be careful when prescribing them.

Medication is not the only way arthritis is treated. Your doctor will also consider whether surgery is a good fit for you. Some types of arthritis can benefit from physical therapy, which may help to reduce pain and increase the range of motion in your problem areas.

References

Arthritis: Symptoms & Causes. (July 2019). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).

Arthritis: Diagnosis & Treatment. (July 2019). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).

Rheumatologists Can Now Treat Patients Via Telemedicine. (January 2018). The Rheumatologist.

Telemedicine Bridges Gaps in Patient Access to Rheumatologists: Page 1. (December 2016). Rheumatology Advisor.

Telemedicine Bridges Gaps in Patient Access to Rheumatologists: Page 2. (December 2016). Rheumatology Advisor.

Telehealth: Should You Try an Online Doctor? (May 4, 2018). Consumer Reports.

How Does TNF Cause Inflammation? (August 2018). WebMD.

What Are NSAIDs for Arthritis? WebMD.

DMARDs Overview. Arthritis Foundation.

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