Rheumatoid Arthritis (cont.)

How Is Rheumatoid Arthritis Treated?

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.

Good communication between the patient and doctor is necessary for effective treatment. Talking to the doctor can help ensure that exercise and pain management programs are provided as needed, and that drugs are prescribed appropriately. Talking to the doctor can also help people who are making decisions about surgery.

Goals of Treatment

  • Relieve pain
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Slow down or stop joint damage
  • Improve a person's sense of well-being and ability to function

Current Treatment Approaches

  • Lifestyle
  • Medications
  • Surgery
  • Routine monitoring and ongoing care

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 (analgesics) are used only for pain relief; others [corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)] 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 newest and perhaps most promising class of arthritis medications are the biologic response modifiers. These are genetically engineered medications that help reduce inflammation and structural damage to the joints by interrupting the cascade of events that drive inflammation. Currently, seven biologic response modifiers are approved for rheumatoid arthritis. They work in one of several ways:

  • Four of these drugs, etanercept (Enbrel2), golimumab (Simponi), infliximab (Remicade), and adalimumab (Humira), reduce inflammation by blocking tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a cytokine or immune system protein that triggers inflammation during normal immune responses.
  • Anakinra (Kineret), works by blocking a cytokine called interleukin-1 (IL-1) that is seen in excess in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Rituximab (Rituxan) stops the activation of a type of white blood cell called B cells. This reduces the overall activity of the immune system, which is overactive in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Abatacept (Orencia) blocks a particular chemical that triggers the overproduction of white blood cells called T cells that play a role in rheumatoid arthritis inflammation.

2Brand 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.

For many years, doctors initially prescribed aspirin or other pain-relieving drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, and waited to prescribe more powerful drugs only if the disease worsened. In recent decades this approach to treatment has changed as studies have shown 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. Someone with persistent rheumatoid arthritis symptoms should see a doctor familiar with the disease and its treatment to reduce the risk of damage.

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.

Many of the new drugs that help reduce disease in rheumatoid arthritis do so by reducing the inflammation that can cause pain and joint damage. However, in some instances, inflammation is one mechanism the body normally uses to maintain health, such as to fight infection and possibly to stop tumors from growing. The magnitude of the risk from the treatment is hard to judge because infections and cancer can occur in patients with rheumatoid arthritis who are not on treatment, and probably more commonly than in healthy individuals. Nevertheless, appropriate caution and vigilance are justified.

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 the 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.

Following are some of the more common surgeries performed for rheumatoid arthritis:

Joint replacement: Joint replacement involves removing all or part of a damaged joint and replacing it with synthetic components. Joint replacement is available for a number of different joints, but the most commonly replaced joints are the hips and knees. Joint replacement surgery is done primarily to relieve pain and improve or preserve function.

Although joint replacement traditionally involved a large incision and long recovery, new minimally invasive surgeries are making it possible to do some forms of joint replacement with smaller incisions and a shorter, easier recovery.

Artificial joints are not always permanent and may eventually have to be replaced. This may be an important consideration for young people.

Arthrodesis (fusion): Arthrodesis is a surgical procedure that involves removing the joint and fusing the bones into one immobile unit, often using bone grafts from the person's own pelvis. Although the procedure limits movement, it can be useful for increasing stability and relieving pain in affected joints. The most commonly fused joints are the ankles and wrists and joints of the fingers and toes.

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 or other treatments for osteoporosis.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies: Special diets, vitamin supplements, and other alternative approaches have been suggested for treating rheumatoid arthritis.

Research shows that some of these, for example, fish oil supplements, may help reduce arthritis inflammation. For most, however, controlled scientific studies either have not been conducted on them or have found no definite benefit to these therapies.

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.

Medications Uses/Effects Side Effects Monitoring
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. Check with your health care provider or pharmacist before you take NSAIDs. Before taking traditional NSAIDs, let your provider know if you drink alcohol or use blood thinners or if you have any of the following: sensitivity or allergy to aspirin or similar drugs, kidney or liver disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, or peptic ulcers.
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. Not to be taken with alcohol or with other products containing acetaminophen. Not to be used for more than 10 days unless directed by a physician.
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. Doctor monitoring is needed.
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). For all traditional NSAIDs: Before taking these drugs, let your doctor know if you drink alcohol or use blood thinners or if you have or have had any of the following: sensitivity or allergy to aspirin or similar drugs, kidney or liver disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, or peptic ulcers.
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. For all corticosteroids, let your doctor know if you have one of the following: fungal infection, history of tuberculosis, underactive thyroid, herpes simplex of the eye, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or stomach ulcer.
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). Doctor monitoring for continued effectiveness of medication and for side effects is needed.
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. Doctor monitoring allows the risk of toxicities to be weighed against the potential benefits of individual medications.
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.

Before taking this drug, tell your doctor if you use allopurinol or have kidney or liver disease. This drug can reduce your ability to fight infection, so call your doctor immediately if you develop chills, fever, or a cough. Regular blood and liver function tests are needed.

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. Before taking this drug, tell your doctor if you have one of the following: sensitivity to castor oil (if receiving the drug by injection), liver or kidney disease, active infection, or high blood pressure. Using this drug may make you more susceptible to infection and certain cancers. Do not take live vaccines while on this drug.
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. Doctor monitoring is important, particularly if you have an allergy to any antimalarial drug or a retinal abnormality.
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. Before taking this drug, tell your doctor if you have any of the following: lupus, skin rash, kidney disease, or colitis. Periodic urine and blood tests are needed to check for side effects.
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. Before taking this medication, let your doctor know if you have one of the following: active infection, liver disease, known immune deficiency, renal insufficiency, or underlying malignancy. You will need regular blood tests, including liver function tests. Leflunomide must not be taken during pregnancy because it may cause birth defects in humans.
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. Doctor monitoring is important, particularly if you have an abnormal blood count, liver or lung disease, alcoholism, immune-system deficiency, or active infection. Methotrexate must not be taken during pregnancy because it may cause birth defects in humans.
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. Doctor monitoring is important, particularly if you are allergic to sulfa drugs or aspirin, or if you have a kidney, liver, or blood disease.
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). It is important to avoid eating undercooked foods (including unpasteurized cheeses, cold cuts, and hot dogs) because undercooked food can cause listeriosis for patients taking biologic response modifiers.
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. Long-term efficacy and safety are uncertain. Doctor monitoring is important, particularly if you have an active infection, exposure to tuberculosis, or a central nervous system disorder. Evaluation for tuberculosis is necessary before treatment begins.
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. Doctor monitoring is required.
*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.