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Rheumatoid Arthritis: 8 Top Myths

Separate the myths from the truth about RA.
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Myth No. 6: Because treatments for rheumatoid arthritis can be toxic, it's best to wait until the disease progresses before beginning treatment.

"This may be the most dangerous myth," warns Kremer.

There is now abundant proof that treating rheumatoid arthritis early prevents joint damage and disability. "Ideally, treatment should start as soon as possible after diagnosis," he adds. "Delaying treatment can mean worse outcomes down the road."

Numerous studies suggest that early treatment could delay full-blown rheumatoid arthritis from developing in some people.

It's true, medications used to treat RA can have side effects. Rarely are the side effects worse than untreated rheumatoid arthritis, though. Simple blood tests and doctor's visits can detect many of the serious side effects of rheumatoid arthritis medications.

Myth No. 7: Most people with rheumatoid arthritis get cancer, too.

Fact: People with rheumatoid arthritis are at slightly higher risk for developing lymphoma (blood cancer), but the risk is low overall.  

"For lymphoma, the lifetime risk is about twice as high in people with RA. It's not clear why," says Kremer.

However, let’s keep that in perspective. Even with the increased risk, only a small minority of people with RA get lymphoma.

For example, in one study, after following over two thousand people with rheumatoid arthritis for about eight years, 11 of them developed lymphoma. According to population estimates, between three and eight people without rheumatoid arthritis would be expected to develop lymphoma over that same time period.  

"Some of this increased incidence may be due to the increased inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, and some may actually be due to the medications," says Kremer. "Nevertheless, most people with rheumatoid arthritis do not get cancer."

Methotrexate, the new biologics, or both may partially contribute to this increased risk. Nevertheless, rheumatologists stand behind the medicines. "You have to weigh the risks and the benefits," suggests Kremer. Untreated rheumatoid arthritis is frequently devastating, while lymphoma is uncommon, often slowly progressing, and treatable, he adds.

On the bright side: the risk of colorectal cancer is actually reduced by up to 40% in people with rheumatoid arthritis. One theory argues that the frequent use of anti-inflammatory medicines called NSAIDs (including aspirin, motrin, and ibuprofen) by rheumatoid arthritis patients helps to prevent cancer in the colon.

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