By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Medicines don't always work the way they should. Even treatments that have helped you for years can suddenly lose their punch. You may need a slightly higher dose, or you may need a different medication entirely. But first things first: Your doctor is unlikely to change your prescription unless there's a clear sign of a problem.
How can you tell if your medicine is working the way it should?
It takes vigilance and teamwork. Talk to your doctor to find the best approach for your particular medicines. Here are some general tips to help you along the way:
- Know your medicines. Make sure you know what each medicine is for, and ask your doctor to explain the goals of the treatment. If you're taking an arthritis medication, for instance, find out if it should ease stiffness as well as pain.
- Consider keeping a journal. Write down how you feel before and after you take your medicine. If you're taking your medicine "as needed," be sure to keep track of the time and the size of each dose. Bring this journal to your doctor's appointments. It will help paint a clear picture of the effectiveness of your treatments.
- Stay vigilant. Many conditions require careful monitoring. Your doctor may recommend regular tests in his or her office to check your progress. Other conditions may require regular home testing. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, for example, ask your doctor what you can do to keep track of your condition at home. If you're diabetic, you'll need to check your blood sugar levels regularly. If you have high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend that you test yourself with a home blood pressure monitor.
One caution: If you use a home blood pressure monitor, it's a good idea to take it to your doctor's office so you can compare the readings you get from your own equipment with the ones from your doctor's equipment. That way you'll know, for instance, if your blood pressure is really higher when you measure it at home, or if your equipment is simply calibrated differently. Your doctor can answer any questions you have about how to use the equipment and can often help you calibrate it correctly. Ask your doctor to recheck your equipment every year.
- Talk with your doctor about the possible side effects of your medication, and what you should do if they occur. Be sure to find out whether there are any side effects, such as rashes, tea-colored urine, or muscle pain and weakness, that mean you should stop taking the medicine and seek medical attention immediately. Stick to the plan. Unless you and your doctor have discussed it beforehand, never stop taking a prescription or change your dose without your doctor's okay. Even if your medicine isn't working as well as you feel it should, a sudden change could be dangerous.
Institute for Safe Medication Practices. Be an informed consumer. 2003.
American Academy of Family Physicians. How to get the most from your medicine. February 2003.
American Academy of Family Physicians. Blood pressure monitoring at home. November 2001.
Accordant Health Services. Monitoring the effectiveness of your medications. May 2003.
Harvard Medical School. Family Health Guide. April 2003.