Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Catherine Burt Driver, MD
    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD, is board certified in internal medicine and rheumatology by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Dr. Driver is a member of the American College of Rheumatology. She currently is in active practice in the field of rheumatology in Mission Viejo, Calif., where she is a partner in Mission Internal Medical Group.

View Rheumatoid Arthritis Slideshow Pictures

Quick GuideRheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Pictures Slideshow

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Pictures Slideshow

What is the treatment for rheumatoid arthritis? What types of medications treat RA?

There is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis. To date, the goal of treatment in rheumatoid arthritis is to reduce joint inflammation and pain, maximize joint function, and prevent joint destruction and deformity. Early medical intervention has been shown to be important in improving outcomes. Aggressive management can improve function, stop damage to joints as monitored on X-rays, and prevent work disability. Optimal RA treatment involves a combination of medications, rest, joint-strengthening exercises, joint protection, and patient (and family) education. Treatment is customized according to many factors such as disease activity, types of joints involved, general health, age, and patient occupation. RA treatment is most successful when there is close cooperation between the doctor, patient, and family members.

Two classes of medications are used in treating rheumatoid arthritis: fast-acting "first-line drugs" and slow-acting "second-line drugs" (also referred to as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs or DMARDs). The first-line drugs, such as aspirin and cortisone (corticosteroids [Rayos, Celestone, Depo-Medrol, Kenalog]), are used to reduce pain and inflammation. The slow-acting second-line drugs, such as methotrexate (Rheumatrex, Trexall, Otrexup, Rasuvo) and hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), promote disease remission and prevent progressive joint destruction.

The degree of destructiveness of rheumatoid arthritis varies among affected individuals. Those with uncommon, less destructive forms of the disease or disease that has quieted after many years of activity ("burned out" rheumatoid arthritis) can be managed with rest plus pain control and anti-inflammatory medications alone. In general, however, function is improved and disability and joint destruction are minimized when the condition is treated earlier with second-line drugs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs), even within months of the diagnosis. Most people require more aggressive second-line drugs, such as methotrexate, in addition to anti-inflammatory agents. Sometimes these second-line drugs are used in combination.

The areas of the body other than the joints that are affected by rheumatoid inflammation are treated individually. Sjögren's syndrome can be helped by artificial tears and humidifying rooms in the home or office. Medicated eyedrops, cyclosporine ophthalmic drops (Restasis), are also available to help the dry eyes in those affected. Regular eye checkups and early antibiotic treatment for infection of the eyes are important. Inflammation of the tendons (tendinitis), bursae (bursitis), and rheumatoid nodules can be injected with cortisone. Inflammation of the lining of the heart and/or lungs may require high doses of oral cortisone.

In some cases with severe joint deformity, surgery may be recommended to restore joint mobility or repair damaged joints. Doctors who specialize in joint surgery are orthopedic surgeons. The types of joint surgery range from arthroscopy to partial and complete replacement of the joint. Arthroscopy is a surgical technique whereby a doctor inserts a tube-like instrument into the joint to see and repair abnormal tissues.

Total joint replacement is a surgical procedure whereby a destroyed joint is replaced with artificial materials. For example, the small joints of the hand can be replaced with plastic material. Large joints, such as the hips or knees, are replaced with metals.

"First-line" rheumatoid arthritis medications

Acetylsalicylate (aspirin), naproxen (Naprosyn), ibuprofen (Advil, Medipren, Motrin), etodolac (Lodine), and diclofenac (Voltaren) are examples of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs are medications that can reduce tissue inflammation, pain, and swelling. NSAIDs are not cortisone. Aspirin, in doses higher than those used in treating headaches and fever, is an effective anti-inflammatory medication for rheumatoid arthritis. Aspirin has been used for joint problems since the ancient Egyptian era. The newer NSAIDs are just as effective as aspirin in reducing inflammation and pain and require fewer dosages per day. Patients' responses to different NSAID medications vary. Therefore, it is not unusual for a doctor to try several NSAID drugs in order to identify the most effective agent with the fewest side effects. The most common side effects of aspirin and other NSAIDs include stomach upset, abdominal pain, ulcers, and even gastrointestinal bleeding. In order to reduce gastrointestinal side effects, NSAIDs are usually taken with food. Additional medications are frequently recommended to protect the stomach from the ulcer effects of NSAIDs. These medications include antacids, sucralfate (Carafate), proton-pump inhibitors (Prevacid and others), and misoprostol (Cytotec). Newer NSAIDs include selective Cox-2 inhibitors, such as celecoxib (Celebrex), which offer anti-inflammatory effects with less risk of stomach irritation and bleeding risk.

Corticosteroid medications can be given orally or injected directly into tissues and joints. They are more potent than NSAIDs in reducing inflammation and in restoring joint mobility and function. Corticosteroids are useful for short periods during severe flares of disease activity or when the disease is not responding to NSAIDs. However, corticosteroids can have serious side effects, especially when given in high doses for long periods of time. These side effects include weight gain, facial puffiness, thinning of the skin and bone, easy bruising, cataracts, risk of infection, muscle wasting, and destruction of large joints, such as the hips. Corticosteroids also carry some increased risk of contracting infections. These side effects can be partially avoided by gradually tapering the doses of corticosteroids as the individual achieves improvement in symptoms. Abruptly discontinuing corticosteroids can lead to flares of the disease or other symptoms of corticosteroid withdrawal and is discouraged. Thinning of the bones due to osteoporosis may be prevented by calcium and vitamin D supplements.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/10/2016
VIEW PATIENT COMMENTS
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis - Early Symptoms and Signs

    What were your symptoms and signs at the onset of your rheumatoid arthritis?

    Post View 100 Comments
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis - Treatments

    What treatments have been effective for your rheumatoid arthritis?

    Post View 40 Comments
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis - Experience

    Please describe your experience with rheumatoid arthritis.

    Post View 61 Comments
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis - Prognosis

    What's the prognosis for your rheumatoid arthritis?

    Post View 9 Comments
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis - Diet

    Discuss the diet or other lifestyle changes you've made to relieve symptoms and signs of RA.

    Post View 2 Comments
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis - Diagnosis

    What led to your rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis?

    Post View 8 Comments

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors