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Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment

Doctors use a variety of approaches to treat rheumatoid arthritis. These are used in different combinations and at different times during the course of the disease and are chosen according to the patient's individual situation. No matter what treatment the doctor and patient choose, however, the goals are the same: to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, slow down or stop joint damage, and improve the person's sense of well-being and ability to function.

Health behavior changes

Certain activities can help improve a person's ability to function independently and maintain a positive outlook.

Rest and exercise: People with rheumatoid arthritis need a good balance between rest and exercise, with more rest when the disease is active and more exercise when it is not. Rest helps to reduce active joint inflammation and pain and to fight fatigue. The length of time for rest will vary from person to person, but in general, shorter rest breaks every now and then are more helpful than long times spent in bed.

Exercise is important for maintaining healthy and strong muscles, preserving joint mobility, and maintaining flexibility. Exercise can also help people sleep well, reduce pain, maintain a positive attitude, and lose weight. Exercise programs should take into account the person's physical abilities, limitations, and changing needs.

Joint care: Some people find using a splint for a short time around a painful joint reduces pain and swelling by supporting the joint and letting it rest. Splints are used mostly on wrists and hands, but also on ankles and feet. A doctor or a physical or occupational therapist can help a person choose a splint and make sure it fits properly. Other ways to reduce stress on joints include self-help devices (for example, zipper pullers, long-handled shoe horns); devices to help with getting on and off chairs, toilet seats, and beds; and changes in the ways that a person carries out daily activities.

Stress reduction: People with rheumatoid arthritis face emotional challenges as well as physical ones. The emotions they feel because of the disease-fear, anger, and frustration-combined with any pain and physical limitations can increase their stress level. Although there is no evidence that stress plays a role in causing rheumatoid arthritis, it can make living with the disease difficult at times. Stress also may affect the amount of pain a person feels. There are a number of successful techniques for coping with stress. Regular rest periods can help, as can relaxation, distraction, or visualization exercises. Exercise programs, participation in support groups, and good communication with the health care team are other ways to reduce stress.

Healthful diet: With the exception of several specific types of oils, there is no scientific evidence that any specific food or nutrient helps or harms people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, an overall nutritious diet with enough-but not an excess of-calories, protein, and calcium is important. Some people may need to be careful about drinking alcoholic beverages because of the medications they take for rheumatoid arthritis. Those taking methotrexate may need to avoid alcohol altogether because one of the most serious long-term side effects of methotrexate is liver damage.

Climate: Some people notice that their arthritis gets worse when there is a sudden change in the weather. However, there is no evidence that a specific climate can prevent or reduce the effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Moving to a new place with a different climate usually does not make a long-term difference in a person's rheumatoid arthritis.

Medications

Most people who have rheumatoid arthritis take medications. Some medications are used only for pain relief; others are used to reduce inflammation. Still others, often called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), are used to try to slow the course of the disease. The person's general condition, the current and predicted severity of the illness, the length of time he or she will take the drug, and the drug's effectiveness and potential side effects are important considerations in prescribing drugs for rheumatoid arthritis. The table below shows currently used rheumatoid arthritis medications, along with their uses and effects, side effects, and monitoring requirements.

Biologic response modifiers are new drugs used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. They can help reduce inflammation and structural damage to the joints by blocking the action of cytokines, proteins of the body's immune system that trigger inflammation during normal immune responses. Three of these drugs, etanercept (Enbrel*), infliximab (Remicade), and adalimumab (Humira), reduce inflammation by blocking the reaction of TNF-α molecules. Another drug, called anakinra (Kineret), works by blocking a protein called interleukin 1 (IL-1) that is seen in excess in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

For many years, doctors initially prescribed aspirin or other pain-relieving drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, as well as rest and physical therapy. They usually prescribed more powerful drugs later only if the disease worsened.

Today, however, many doctors have changed their approach, especially for patients with severe, rapidly progressing rheumatoid arthritis. Studies show that early treatment with more powerful drugs, and the use of drug combinations instead of one medication alone, may be more effective in reducing or preventing joint damage. Once the disease improves or is in remission, the doctor may gradually reduce the dosage or prescribe a milder medication.

Surgery

Several types of surgery are available to patients with severe joint damage. The primary purpose of these procedures is to reduce pain, improve the affected joint's function, and improve the patient's ability to perform daily activities. Surgery is not for everyone, however, and the decision should be made only after careful consideration by patient and doctor. Together they should discuss the patient's overall health, the condition of the joint or tendon that will be operated on, and the reason for, as well as the risks and benefits of, the surgical procedure. Cost may be another factor. Commonly performed surgical procedures include joint replacement, tendon reconstruction, and synovectomy.

Joint replacement: This is the most frequently performed surgery for rheumatoid arthritis, and it is done primarily to relieve pain and improve or preserve joint function. Artificial joints are not always permanent and may eventually have to be replaced. This may be an important consideration for young people.

Tendon reconstruction: Rheumatoid arthritis can damage and even rupture tendons, the tissues that attach muscle to bone. This surgery, which is used most frequently on the hands, reconstructs the damaged tendon by attaching an intact tendon to it. This procedure can help to restore hand function, especially if the tendon is completely ruptured.

Synovectomy: In this surgery, the doctor actually removes the inflamed synovial tissue. Synovectomy by itself is seldom performed now because not all of the tissue can be removed, and it eventually grows back. Synovectomy is done as part of reconstructive surgery, especially tendon reconstruction.

Routine Monitoring and Ongoing Care

Regular medical care is important to monitor the course of the disease, determine the effectiveness and any negative effects of medications, and change therapies as needed. Monitoring typically includes regular visits to the doctor. It also may include blood, urine, and other laboratory tests and x rays.

People with rheumatoid arthritis may want to discuss preventing osteoporosis with their doctors as part of their long-term, ongoing care. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become weakened and fragile. Having rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of developing osteoporosis for both men and women, particularly if a person takes corticosteroids. Such patients may want to discuss with their doctors the potential benefits of calcium and vitamin D supplements, hormone therapy, or other treatments for osteoporosis.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies

Special diets, vitamin supplements, and other alternative approaches have been suggested for treating rheumatoid arthritis. Although many of these approaches may not be harmful in and of themselves, controlled scientific studies either have not been conducted on them or have found no definite benefit to these therapies. Some alternative or complementary approaches may help the patient cope or reduce some of the stress associated with living with a chronic illness. As with any therapy, patients should discuss the benefits and drawbacks with their doctors before beginning an alternative or new type of therapy. If the doctor feels the approach has value and will not be harmful, it can be incorporated into a patient's treatment plan. However, it is important not to neglect regular health care. The Arthritis Foundation publishes material on alternative therapies as well as established therapies, and patients may want to contact this organization for information.

 

Table 1: Rheumatoid Arthritis Medications
Medications Uses/Effects Side Effects
Analgesics and Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) Analgesics relieve pain; NSAIDs are a large class of medications useful against pain and inflammation. A number of NSAIDs are available over the counter. More than a dozen others—including a subclass called COX-2 inhibitors—are available only with a prescription. NSAIDs can cause stomach irritation or, less often, can affect kidney function. The longer a person uses NSAIDs, the more likely he or she is to have side effects, ranging from mild to serious. Many other drugs cannot be taken when a patient is being treated with NSAIDs because they alter the way the body uses or eliminates these other drugs. NSAIDs sometimes are associated with serious gastrointestinal problems, including ulcers, bleeding, and perforation of the stomach or intestine. People over age 65 and those with any history of ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding should use NSAIDs with caution.
Acetaminophen Nonprescription medications used to relieve pain. Examples are aspirin-free Anacin*, Excedrin caplets, Panadol, Tylenol, and Tylenol Arthritis. Usually no side effects when taken as directed.
Aspirin
     Buffered
     Plain
Aspirin is used to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation, allowing patients to move more easily and carry out normal activities. It is generally part of early and ongoing therapy. Upset stomach; tendency to bruise easily; ulcers, pain, or discomfort; diarrhea; headache; heartburn or indigestion; nausea or vomiting.
* NOTE: Brand names included in this booklet are provided as examples only, and their inclusion does not mean that these products are endorsed by the National Institutes of Health or any other Government agency. Also, if a particular brand name is not mentioned, this does not mean or imply that the product is unsatisfactory.
Traditional NSAIDs
     Ibuprofen
     Ketoprofen
     Naproxen
NSAIDs help relieve pain within hours of admin-istration in dosages available over-the-counter (available for all three medications). They relieve pain and inflammation in dosages available in prescription form (ibu-profen and ketoprofen). It may take several days to reduce inflammation. For all traditional NSAIDs: Abdominal or stomach cramps, pain, or discomfort; diarrhea; dizziness; drowsiness or light-headedness; headache; heartburn or indigestion; peptic ulcers; nausea or vomiting; possible kidney and liver damage (rare).
Corticosteroids These are steroids given by mouth or injection. They are used to relieve inflammation and reduce swelling, redness, itching, and allergic reactions. Increased appetite, indigestion, nervousness, or restlessness.
Methylprednisolone
Prednisone
These steroids are available in pill form or as an injection into a joint. Improvements are seen in several hours up to 24 hours after administration. There is potential for serious side effects, especially at high doses. They are used for severe flares and when the disease does not respond to NSAIDs and DMARDs. Osteoporosis, mood changes, fragile skin, easy bruising, fluid retention, weight gain, muscle weakness, onset or worsening of diabetes, cataracts, increased risk of infection, hyper-tension (high blood pressure).
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) These are common arthritis medications. They relieve painful, swollen joints and slow joint damage, and several DMARDs may be used over the disease course. They take a few weeks or months to have an effect, and may produce significant improvements for many patients. Exactly how they work is still unknown. Side effects vary with each medicine. DMARDs may increase risk of infection, hair loss, and kidney or liver damage.
Azathioprine This drug was first used in higher doses in cancer chemotherapy and organ transplantation. It is used in patients who have not responded to other drugs, and in combination therapy. Cough or hoarseness, fever or chills, loss of appetite, lower back or side pain, nausea or vomiting, painful or difficult urination, unusual tiredness or weakness.
Cyclosporine This medication was first used in organ transplantation to prevent rejection. It is used in patients who have not responded to other drugs. Bleeding, tender, or enlarged gums; high blood pressure; increase in hair growth; kidney problems; trembling and shaking of hands.
Hydroxychloroquine It may take several months to notice the benefits of this drug, which include reducing the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Diarrhea, eye problems (rare), headache, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, stomach cramps or pain.
Gold sodium thiomalate This was one of the first DMARDs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Redness or soreness of tongue; swelling or bleeding gums; skin rash or itching; ulcers or sores on lips, mouth, or throat; irritation on tongue. Joint pain may occur for one or two days after injection.
Leflunomide This drug reduces signs and symptoms and slows structural damage to joints caused by arthritis. Bloody or cloudy urine; congestion in chest; cough; diarrhea; difficult, burning, or painful urination or breathing; fever; hair loss; headache; heartburn; loss of appetite; nausea and/or vomiting; skin rash; stomach pain; sneezing; and sore throat.
Methotrexate This drug can be taken by mouth or by injection and results in rapid improvement (it usually takes 3-6 weeks to begin working). It appears to be very effective, especially in combination with infliximab or etanercept. In general, it produces more favorable long-term responses compared with other DMARDs such as sulfasalazine, gold sodium thiomalate, and hydroxychloroquine. Abdominal discomfort, chest pain, chills, nausea, mouth sores, painful urination, sore throat, unusual tiredness or weakness.
Sulfasalazine This drug works to reduce the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis by suppressing the immune system. Abdominal pain, aching joints, diarrhea, headache, sensitivity to sunlight, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, skin rash.
Biologic Response Modifiers These drugs selectively block parts of the immune system called cytokines. Cytokines play a role in inflammation. Long-term efficacy and safety are uncertain. Increased risk of infection, especially tuberculosis. Increased risk of pneumonia, and listeriosis (a foodborne illness caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes).
Tumor Necrosis Factor Inhibitors
     Etanercept
     Infliximab
     Adalimumab
These medications are highly effective for treating patients with an inadequate response to DMARDs. They may be prescribed in combination with some DMARDs, particularly methotrexate. Etanercept requires subcutaneous (beneath the skin) injections two times per week. Infliximab is taken intravenously (IV) during a 2-hour procedure. It is administered with methotrexate. Adalimumab requires injections every 2 weeks. Long-term efficacy and safety are uncertain. Etanercept: Pain or burning in throat; redness, itching, pain, and/or swelling at injection site; runny or stuffy nose.
Infliximab: Abdominal pain, cough, dizziness, fainting, headache, muscle pain, runny nose, shortness of breath, sore throat, vomiting, wheezing.
Adalimumab: Redness, rash, swelling, itching, bruising, sinus infection, headache, nausea.
Interleukin1 Inhibitor
     Anakinra
This medication requires daily injections. Long-term efficacy and safety are uncertain. Redness, swelling, bruising, or pain at the site of injection; head-ache; upset stomach; diarrhea; runny nose; and stomach pain.

 

Reference:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, USA.