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The way you talk to your doctor may be as important as anything you say. To make the most of an appointment, follow these expert-recommended steps.

Be specific. Instead of just complaining about your pain, Colum­bia University womens-health expert Marianne Legato, MD, says, describe it: “In September 2007 I started having achy upper arms and thighs, and my elbows and the joints of my fingers hurt. I controlled the pain with Tylenol, but it hasnt stopped.”

Keep it short. “Bringing in 10 pages of symptoms is not helpful,” says Caroline Whitacre, PhD, vice president for research at Ohio State University. “The doctor cant get through that in 10 minutes.” Try presenting only three key symptoms. For example, to help identify rheumatoid arthritis, tell the doc where the pain is (on both sides of your body or just one?), what makes it better and worse, and how often you get it.

Know your family history, especially about autoimmune diseases. “They tend to run in families, but not as the same disease,” says Virginia Ladd, president of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. “That kind of history is not asked on a medical form.” Talk to your parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and start an online family-medical-history tree.

Ask for what you want. “If youre assertive and say, ‘I want to be checked for this, this, and this, doctors almost have an obligation to do those tests,” Ladd says.

Dont apologize. Legato says your appointment is a business transaction; docs arent doing you a favor. Theyre paid to listen to everything you say. “Many women say, ‘I hate to bother you, when theyre paying me for that time,” Legato says.

Understand next steps. Legato suggests asking four questions after every appointment: Whats your impression of the reason for my symptoms? What lab tests are you ordering? Why? And whats your plan for contacting me about the results and easing my symptoms?

Switch doctors (if you must). The average person with an autoimmune disease will see four docs and wait four years to get a diagnosis. Dont wait. Get someone new who really hears you—maybe your gynecologist.