One of the first things people with arthritis realize after getting diagnosed is the wide array of pills, injections, patches, creams, and other medications they’re expected to take to prevent pain, stiffness, and other arthritis symptoms. Add in some vitamins and supplements and home remedies and before long you may look like you’re running a pharmacy out of your bathroom.
Taking your medications exactly as your doctor prescribes them is one of the most important things you can do to manage your arthritis, says Elyse Rubenstein, MD, a rheumatologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. This means you have to keep track of not just which medications you’re taking but their dosage amounts, dates and times they need to be taken, how they need to be stored, and when they need to be refilled. It can feel like a full-time job all on its own.
To do it right, you need a medication schedule. “The most important thing to consider when setting up a medication schedule is to make it work with your lifestyle,” Dr. Rubinstein says. After that, it’s all about finding what works for you.
Thankfully there are a lot of options to help manage a complicated medicine schedule. Consider these tips to help you stick to your medication routine.
1. Tie it to another habit
When you’re first starting a medication or making a change to your schedule, one of the best ways to remember your meds is to integrate them into your daily routine by linking them with another habit you do every day, Dr. Rubenstein says. “You brush your teeth every day, so put your pill bottle with your toothpaste and toothbrush,” she explains. “Then when you reach for your toothbrush, grab your medicine and take it first.”
2. Ask your pharmacist about pill packs
If your treatment plan involves multiple medications or treatments for several illnesses, ask your pharmacist if they offer pill pack services, says Annette Hetzel, RN, a nurse manager who supervises rheumatology nurses. Some pharmacies will make custom “pill packs” where all your medicines for each day are packaged together in individual sealed packages, labeled with the time you need to take them. “These can be a lifesaver for patients with heavy pill regimens,” Hetzel says. “This also makes it easy to remember if you’ve taken them and reduces the risk of ‘double dosing.’”
3. Use disposable pill pouches
If signing up for a service like PillPack isn’t available to you or is too expensive, you can always DIY, Hetzel says. You can buy mini disposable zip-top bags and sort out your own doses. Make sure to use a Sharpie and label them with the date and time you need to take them.
4. Get a day of the week pill organizer
Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. People have sworn by little plastic pill organizers for decades. You can find these in a wide variety of colors and styles, including two-week organizers or ones that offer AM/PM boxes for each day. The trick for people with arthritis that affects their hands is to find one that’s easy to open, Hetzel says. Look for one with large tabs or buttons, like this arthritis-friendly organizer that allows you to schedule up to four doses a day.
5. Put your pills on top of your coffee maker
Many people won’t start their day without a cup of coffee. When it comes to remembering your meds, your java addiction can work in your favor, Dr. Rubenstein says. Put your pill bottle somewhere you can’t miss it, like on top of the coffee canister or in your mug. Drugs that need to be refrigerated can be kept with your milk or creamer.
6. Let your phone remind you
Of course there’s an app for medication reminders. The Medisafe Medication Management and Pill Reminder App and the Care Zone Health Info Organizer App get high marks from both patients and doctors. “This is a great choice for people with very complicated pill regimens,” Hetzel says.
7. Set a phone alarm
Phone alarms are good for so many things — medication schedules included, Hetzel says. “Set an alarm, or multiple alarms if needed, for the days and times you need to take your meds,” she explains. Then make a rule that you can’t “dismiss” the alarm until you’ve actually taken your pills.
8. Set a calendar reminder for less frequent doses
Phone alarms work best for medications that need to be taken daily but what if you have a drug that only needs to be taken weekly or every other week, like many biologics? Set a recurring reminder or an appointment in your phone’s calendar, Dr. Rubenstein says. “If you treat it like any other important appointment and do it as soon as the reminder pops up, then you won’t forget,” she says. Most calendar apps allow you to program a recurring event on any type of schedule and have the options for visual and/or auditory reminders. Paper calendars work too — just be sure to put your calendar in a place where you’ll see it often throughout your day, she adds.
9. Send yourself an email
If you’re the type who checks their email all day long, your inbox can be an effective medication reminder tool, Hetzel says. Write an email to yourself with the subject line stating the date, time, and medication you’d like to remember. Then set it to send on the date you need the reminder.
10. Keep an extra dose or two in your bag
Have you ever gotten to work and realized you forgot to take your medication? Instead of running home or taking the dose in the evening, you can stick to your schedule by keeping a few extra doses in a pillbox in your bag or desk, Dr. Rubenstein says.
11. Ask about an electronic pill bottle cap timer
Another high-tech helper are bottle cap timers. These caps fit on most standard size prescription bottles and/or come with their own bottle. You can program the cap to beep when you are due to take your medication and it will track the last time it was opened so you never have to worry about whether or not you took your pills, Hetzel says.
12. Keep a digital timer magnet on your fridge door
A countdown timer is a simple way to remember to take medications that need to be refrigerated, says Patrick Lloyd, a pharmacy tech at a pharmacy in San Francisco, California. Digital timers can be programmed for both day and time. This provides a visual reminder every time you go to your fridge and then an auditory reminder when it’s time to take your meds. Find a programmable digital timer that can be attached to your fridge door via a magnet or plugged into a nearby outlet.
13. Flip the bottle
“A really easy way to track whether you took your meds is to simply flip the bottle over after taking your pill,” Lloyd says. “If the lid is down, then you took your pill!” The only trick is remembering to flip it right side up again every evening.
14. Write dates/times on blister packs
Many arthritis medications come in blister packs and if they don’t you can always ask your pharmacy if they can order them packaged that way, Lloyd says. Why? It’s easy to take a fine-tipped marker and write the date on top of each pill in the pack, making it a simple matter to keep track of your med schedule, he says.
15. Move the bottles
Another simple hack is to move the bottles after taking your pills, Lloyd says. “I have one patient who has all of his bottles in the kitchen. Once he takes his morning doses he moves the bottles to his bedside table to remind him to take his evening doses. Then, after taking those, he moves the bottles back to the kitchen. It works!” he says.
16. Make it ‘fun’
Many patients dread taking their biologic medications because they fear or dislike injecting themselves or because they feel wiped out for a day or two afterward. This hesitancy can lead them to procrastinate taking their doses or even forget them, Hetzel says. To avoid this psychological trap, she suggests linking your medication schedule with something you look forward to. “One of my patients saves her favorite TV show for the evening when she takes her injections,” she explains. “Now she looks forward to it because she gets to binge-watch two episodes while eating popcorn, so it takes her mind off her discomfort.”
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