Living with rheumatoid arthritis usually means taking medication. The great news is that RA drugs have come a long way.
"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 good drugs and aggressive treatment, symptoms like painful, swollen joints and fatigue may go away, at least for a while, in some people, he says.
New drugs also mean more options. Your doctor can custom-tailor your medicine regime to cause fewer side effects and fit well with your life.
What to Expect From Treatment
As soon as you're diagnosed with RA, you'll probably start taking medicine, even if you aren't feeling 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, or disease-modifying antirheumatic drug, for everyone with RA because they ease symptoms and slow or stop worsening of the disease. Unlike some RA treatments that treat only the pain, a DMARD treats the cause: an overactive immune system that's hurting 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."
Another option is a biologic. Biologics are a type of DMARD that target and block specific effects of the immune system. Doctors often recommend a biologic when other treatments have not eased symptoms enough.
One problem with DMARDs is they 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 nasty 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."
Customizing Your Treatment
After about 3 months on a DMARD, your doctor will take stock of how you're doing, based on how you're feeling, blood tests, X-rays, and other factors.
If your DMARD is working well, great. If it's not, you have a lot of 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 factors 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 drugs 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.