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.

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Quick GuideRheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Pictures Slideshow

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Pictures Slideshow

"Second-line" or "slow-acting" rheumatoid arthritis drugs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs or DMARDs)

While "first-line" medications (NSAIDs and corticosteroids) can relieve joint inflammation and pain, they do not necessarily prevent joint destruction or deformity. Rheumatoid arthritis requires medications other than NSAIDs and corticosteroids to stop progressive damage to cartilage, bone, and adjacent soft tissues. The RA medications needed for ideal management of the disease are also referred to as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs or DMARDs. They come in a variety of forms and are listed below. These "second-line" or "slow-acting" medicines may take weeks to months to become effective. They are used for long periods of time, even years, at varying doses. If maximally effective, DMARDs can promote remission, thereby retarding the progression of joint destruction and deformity. Sometimes a number of DMARD second-line medications are used together as combination therapy. As with the first-line medications, the doctor may need to try different second-line medications before treatment is optimal.

Research suggests that patients who respond to a DMARD with control of the rheumatoid disease may actually decrease the known risk (small but real) of lymphoma (cancer of lymph nodes) that exists from simply having rheumatoid arthritis. The various available DMARDs are reviewed next.

Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) is related to quinine and has also been used in the treatment of malaria. It is used over long periods for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Possible side effects include upset stomach, skin rashes, muscle weakness, and vision changes. Even though vision changes are rare, people taking Plaquenil should be monitored by an eye doctor (ophthalmologist).

Sulfasalazine (Azulfidine) is an oral medication traditionally used in the treatment of mild to moderately severe inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's colitis. Azulfidine is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis in combination with anti-inflammatory medications. Azulfidine is generally well tolerated. Common side effects include rash and upset stomach. Because Azulfidine is made up of sulfa and salicylate compounds, it should be avoided by people with known sulfa allergies.

Methotrexate (Rheumatrex, Trexall, Otrexup, Rasuvo) has gained popularity among doctors as an initial second-line drug because of both its effectiveness and relatively infrequent side effects. It also has an advantage in dose flexibility (dosages can be adjusted according to needs). Methotrexate is an immunosuppressive drug. It can affect the bone marrow and the liver, even rarely causing cirrhosis. All people taking methotrexate require regular blood tests to monitor blood counts and liver function. Taking folic acid as a supplement can reduce the risk of methotrexate side effects.

Gold salts have been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis throughout most of the past century. Gold thioglucose (Solganal) and gold thiomalate (Myochrysine) are given by injection, initially on a weekly basis, for months to years. Oral gold, auranofin (Ridaura), was introduced in the 1980s. Side effects of gold (oral and injectable) include skin rash, mouth sores, kidney damage with leakage of protein in the urine, and bone marrow damage with anemia and low white cell count. Those receiving gold treatment are regularly monitored with blood and urine tests. Oral gold can cause diarrhea. These gold drugs have lost favor because of the availability of more effective treatments, particularly methotrexate.

D-penicillamine (Depen, Cuprimine) can be helpful in selected cases of progressive forms of rheumatoid arthritis. Side effects are similar to those of gold. They include fever, chills, mouth sores, a metallic taste in the mouth, skin rash, kidney and bone marrow damage, stomach upset, and easy bruising. People taking this medication require routine blood and urine tests. D-penicillamine can rarely cause symptoms of other autoimmune diseases and is no longer commonly used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

Immunosuppressive medicines are powerful medications that suppress the body's immune system. A number of immunosuppressive drugs are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. They include methotrexate as described above, azathioprine (Imuran), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), chlorambucil (Leukeran), and cyclosporine (Sandimmune). Because of potentially serious side effects, immunosuppressive medicines (other than methotrexate) are generally reserved for those who have very aggressive disease or those with serious complications of rheumatoid inflammation, such as blood vessel inflammation (vasculitis). The exception is methotrexate, which is not frequently associated with serious side effects and can be carefully monitored with blood testing. Methotrexate has become a preferred second-line medication as a result.

Immunosuppressive medications can depress bone-marrow function and cause anemia, a low white cell count, and low platelet counts. A low white count can increase the risk of infections, while a low platelet count can increase the risk of bleeding. Methotrexate rarely can lead to liver cirrhosis, as described above, and allergic reactions in the lung. Cyclosporine can cause kidney damage and high blood pressure. Because of potentially serious side effects, immunosuppressive medications are used in low doses, usually in combination with anti-inflammatory agents.

Combinations of traditional DMARDs, including sulfasalazine, methotrexate, and hydroxychloroquine, have been shown by researchers to be another potent method of stopping disease progression of rheumatoid arthritis.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/10/2016

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