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When Specialists Collide

If you’ve ever posted or messaged a request for medical advice to, then you’re familiar with our standard recommendation: “Please consult with your rheumatologist.” While we wish that we could answer every question to every community member’s satisfaction, the fact of the matter is that rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that varies greatly in terms of severity and symptoms, both from person to person and within the same individual over time. This disease is further complicated by the impacts of side effects of the medications used to treat it. Therefore, adequate medical care requires a face-to-face meeting with a doctor trained in rheumatology.

RA requires a healthcare team

That being said, as RA is such a complex disease, there are times when even a rheumatologist’s services are not enough. Complications of the condition itself or the treatments used to fight it may require medical assistance from ophthalmologists, dermatologists, podiatrists, orthopedic surgeons, pulmonologists, or cardiologists, to name just a few. Every patient hopes that when RA-related issues require involvement from more than one specialist that the doctors will be on the same page. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Struggling with a sinus infection due to RA

In the past weeks, I’ve struggled with intense illness. A pulmonologist diagnosed me with pertussis (whooping cough). After a couple of weeks of treatment, my lungs began to improve. However, my sinuses were more painful and congested than I’d ever experienced with the scores of sinus infections I’ve had in my life. The pulmonologist sent me for a sinus CT scan, which indicated complete impaction of my sinus cavities. When he saw the scan, he said I had a very severe infection, and that I needed to see an ear, nose and throat specialist immediately. When his nurse was told the ENT couldn’t see me until the following week, the pulmonologist himself got on the phone and requested that I be seen within 24 hours. The next day, I was sitting in the ENT’s office.

Receiving treatment for the sinus infection

This specialist agreed that I had a “rip-roaring” infection that required aggressive treatment. Confirming this, he put a scope up my nose and saw that my sinuses were full of puss (yuck!). As rheumatoid arthritis and many of its treatments suppress the immune system, I generally have three to four sinus infections a year. However, I’d never experienced one even approaching the intensity of pain and fatigue this mother-of-all-sinus-infections caused. The ENT prescribed a 21-day course of high dosage, heavy-duty antibiotics and a 17-day decreasing course of prednisone that started at 60 mg/day.

A slow improvement in symptoms

Over the next five days, the ENT saw me two more times, as he kept expecting to see rapid improvement in response to this aggressive treatment and we were both frustrated at the slow pace of my healing. Once the infection finally began to abate, he told me to continue to postpone my Orencia infusion another week, at which point we would “talk procedures.”

Can a sinus infection this bad happen again in the future?

When I returned for that follow-up appointment, I was hoping the ENT would say there was something he could do that would prevent such a severe infection from ever happening again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. He said he believed RA might actually be causing the inflammation in my sinuses, setting the stage for infection. Because of this, he reduced the 90-95% success rate he typically sees with an in-office sinus procedure to only 50-60% likely to help my case. He wanted me to resume the Orencia infusions that had been suspended for three weeks due to the infections, and then return in a fortnight so he could see what my sinuses looked like with the biologic drug in my system.

Disagreement within my healthcare team

I was surprised to hear that RA might be causing inflammation in my sinuses. While I know that rheumatoid arthritis can impact far more parts of the body than joints alone, it never occurred to me that RA might affect the tissues in my sinuses. However, when I went to my rheumatologist the next day in hopes of resuming my Orencia infusions, my doctor disagreed with the ENT. He said that RA does not cause sinuses to swell, but that the disease itself and the immunosuppressant drugs I take to treat it both make me more susceptible to infections of all kinds, including sinus infections. So while the ENT said that my RA was creating sinus inflammation that was leading to infections, my rheumatologist said my RA was leading to infections that caused sinus inflammation. This difference is not purely philosophical, but leads to two distinct treatment paths. The ENT wanted me back on Orencia to reduce the inflammation in my sinuses. My rheumatologist said that with the two serious back-to-back infections I’d had, it wasn’t safe for me to receive an infusion until I was off antibiotics for a month and able to remain infection free.

Deciding on listening to my rheumatologist

I hate being given varying opinions from two specialists I trust and respect. However, when it comes to RA, I’ve decided I have to listen to my rheumatologist, and I’m now anxiously awaiting the next six weeks until I can resume Orencia treatment. The prednisone I’ve been on has kept joint pain at bay, but I will soon finish it, and I’m worried that I’ll flare long before my doctor clears me for an infusion.

I wish doctors in my healthcare team were in agreeance

There are so many challenges involved in living with rheumatoid arthritis. I am fortunate that access to health care is not one of my personal challenges, as I recognize this is a huge barrier for many people in need of medical care. In the past three weeks, I have received prompt attention and excellent medical care from as many specialists. Yet, I can’t help wishing that they all agreed on the best course of action. The fact that the treatments used to fight RA makes me more prone to infections already leaves me feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. That feeling is only intensified when two specialists disagree on the best course of treatment.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Calliezmom
    4 years ago

    When my various Specialists collide, I request a phone consultation between the Specialists involved, usually from my Rheumy’s office. No, it doesn’t happen at that moment, and yes I have to come back for that telephone consultation. There have been a couple of times that the phone consultation happens within an hour or so, so I just wait in the waiting room. Physician to physician etiquette usually brings around a quick response. When I was in the hospital in HS, my Orthopedic Surgeon ordered PT daily, totally unaware that I was in isolation due to a MRSA infection being treated by another Specialist, who insisted on complete immobilization and no movement. Apparently the Ortho scolded my mother and she went off on him about the conflicting order and why he didn’t know about it! Even if they had done PT in my isolation room, the movement would have caused the blood infection to spread and quite possibly kill me. And both of these doctors were treating me in the same hospital. Now, I point out the inconsistency right then and ask for the 2 physicians to get together to figure it out. And yes, as an adult, I want to be involved in the conversation!

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience and this advice! Thank goodness you and your mother were good advocates and didn’t proceed with something that may have been life-threatening! Your story certainly highlights the critical importance of doctor communication. Thank you!

  • Pam508
    4 years ago

    I have the same symptoms of sinus inflammation especially when there are climate changes, but have improved with the AR treatment but if i have a crisis have so much pain in my face and joints too. It’s also good to know that someone has these symptoms

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thank you for sharing, Pam! I do wish there was a better understanding of how all these pieces fit together.

  • Philanthartist
    4 years ago

    Unbelievable! A large part of the misery of rheumatoid disease is dealing with doctors appointments and having to be your own champion when you feel so terrible. I hope and pray things get better for you. God bless!

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks so much for your comment and well wishes!

  • Carla Kienast
    4 years ago

    Aargh! I am so sorry — both that you feel crummy and are still dealing with this, but that you’re getting colliding direction from your doctors. Please let us know how this turns out!

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    4 years ago

    Thanks so much, Carla! I go back to the ENT in a few weeks, so we’ll see!

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