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Living with rheumatoid arthritis usually means taking medication

"Treatments are working better than we could have imagined 15 years ago," says Clifton O. "Bing" Bingham, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center in Baltimore. Thanks to aggressive treatment, symptoms like painful, swollen joints and fatigue may go away, at least for a while, in some people, he says.

What to Expect From Treatment

As soon as your doctor tells you that you have RA, you'll probably start taking medicine, even if you don’t feel that bad.

"RA can cause irreversible joint damage in the first 3 to 6 months after you're diagnosed," says M. Elaine Husni, MD, MPH, director of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center at the Cleveland Clinic. "There's not a lot of time to wait."

Doctors recommend a “DMARD,” a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug, for everyone with RA. These drugs ease symptoms and slow down or stop the disease from getting worse. Unlike some RA treatments that treat only the pain, a DMARD treats the overactive immune system that harms healthy tissue.

Most people start with a DMARD called methotrexate. "It's tried and true," Husni says. "We have a lot of experience with it and know how to manage the side effects."

Other DMARDs are “biologics.” They are genetically engineered to block specific effects of the immune system. Doctors often recommend a biologic when other treatments have not eased symptoms enough.

Other Treatments

DMARDs take a few months to work. In the meantime, you may need painkillers or a steroid like prednisone to get your symptoms under control.

Steroids work fast, but they have long-term side effects. "Steroids are like a Band-Aid, not a real solution," Bingham says. "The goal is to get off them as quickly as possible once the DMARD starts working."

Your Custom Plan

After about 3 months on a DMARD, your doctor will check on how you're doing based on how you feel, results from blood tests and X-rays, and other things.

If your DMARD works well, great. If it's not, you have options. You may switch to another medication. Or your doctor might add a second DMARD, like a biologic. "Different DMARDs have different ways of turning down the immune response," Bingham says. Sometimes combining them works best.

What other things could affect your medication choices?

  • Your symptoms. Some drugs work better with specific symptoms. For example, some RA medicines can make you more tired, but some biologic DMARDs can help relieve fatigue, Bingham says.
  • Other health conditions. Some medications might not be a good fit if you have other health problems. For instance, some biologic DMARDs may not be safe if you have heart disease or MS. If you drink a lot of alcohol, methotrexate is not safe.
  • Your insurance. "In a lot of cases, what the insurance company pays for is the single most important factor in determining what drug you get," Bingham says.

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