Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment
RA usually requires lifelong treatment, including various
medications, physical therapy, education, and possibly surgery aimed at relieving the
signs and symptoms of the disease.
Medications used in Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment
For the past 10 years, studies have shown that early, aggressive treatment for RA can
delay the onset of joint destruction. In addition to rest, strengthening exercises, and
anti-inflammatory agents, the current standard of care is to initiate aggressive therapy
with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) once the diagnosis is confirmed.
Anti-inflammatory agents used to treat RA traditionally included aspirin and
non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil),
fenoprofen, indomethacin, naproxen (Naprosyn), and others.
These are widely used medications that are effective in relieving pain and inflammation
associated with RA. However, side effects associated with frequent use of many of these
medications include life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding.
Similar drugs, called Cox-2 inhibitors, are now a mainstay of anti-inflammatory therapy
because the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding is significantly reduced with these drugs.
Currently, there are two available -- Rofecoxib (Vioxx) and Celecoxib (Celebrex).
As mentioned, DMARDs alter the course of the disease. Included in this group are gold
compounds, which can be injectible (Myochrysine and Solganal) or oral (auranofin/Ridaura).
Methotrexate (Rheumatrex) is the most commonly used DMARD for rheumatoid arthritis with
good proven effectiveness.
Antimalarials medications, such as Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), as well as
Sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), are also beneficial, usually in conjunction with Methotrexate.
The benefits from these medications may take weeks or months to be apparent. Because
they are associated with toxic side effects, frequent monitoring of blood tests while on
these medications is imperative.
In the last few years, new and exciting medications have been introduced. A promising
medication that is fast becoming a first-line agent for the aggressive treatment of RA is
called etanercept (Enbrel). Enbrel acts by inhibiting an inflammatory protein, called
tumor necrosis factor (TNF).
Other new medications include infliximab (Remicade) that also blocks TNF and
leflunomide (Arava), which blocks the growth of new cells. Anakinra is an even newer
therapy that blocks the action of another inflammatory protein, interleukin-1. Anakinra
and Etanercept are injectable medications, whereas Infliximab is given intravenously every
Drugs that suppress the immune system, like azathioprine (Imuran) and cyclophosphamide
(Cytoxan), may be used in people who have failed other therapies. These medications, which
are associated with toxic side effects, are reserved for severe cases of RA.
Corticosteroids have been used to reduce inflammation in RA for greater than 40 years.
However, because of potential long-term side effects, corticosteroid use is limited to
short courses and low doses where possible.
Side effects may include bruising, psychosis, thinning of the bones (osteoporosis), cataracts, weight gain,
susceptibility to infections, diabetes, and high blood pressure. A number of medications
can be administered in conjunction with steroids to minimize resultant osteoporosis.
Consult a health care provider before long-term use of any medication, including
Surgery used in Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment
Occasionally, surgery is indicated for severely affected joints. The most successful
surgeries are those on the knees and hips. Usually, the first surgical treatment is
removal of the synovium (synovectomy).
A later alternative is total joint replacement with a joint prosthesis. Surgeries can
be expected to relieve joint pain, correct deformities, and modestly improve joint
function. In extreme cases, total knee or hip replacement can mean the difference between
being totally dependent on others and having an independent life at home.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment - lifestyle changes
Range of motion exercises and individualized exercise programs prescribed by a physical
therapist can delay the loss of joint function.
Joint protection techniques, heat and cold treatments, and splints or orthotic devices
to support and align joints may be very helpful.
Frequent rest periods between activities, as well as 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night
Other therapy used in Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment
Prosorba column is a device approved by the FDA in 1999 for treatment of moderate to
severe RA in adult patients with long-standing disease (who have not responded to
It works by removing inflammatory antibodies from the blood by a process called
apheresis. The blood is removed through a small catheter and then passed through a column
(the size of a coffee mug) that is coated with a substance called protein A.
Protein A binds with the antibodies and removes them from the blood. The blood is then
given back. The procedure takes 2-3 hours, and must be done once a week for 12 weeks.
Studies have reported that one third to one half of the people who receive this
treatment may slow down, or even stop the RA from worsening. Reported side effects include
anemia, fatigue, fever, low blood pressure, and nausea. Some people have developed an
infection from the catheter. Often there is a flare-up of joint pain for several days
after the treatment.
Sometimes therapists will use special machines to apply deep heat or electrical
stimulation to reduce pain and improve joint mobility.
Occupational therapists can construct splints for your hand and wrist, and teach you
how to best protect and use your joints when they are affected by arthritis. They also
show people how to better cope with day-to-day tasks at work and at home, despite
limitations caused by RA.
Alternative treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis
A variety of alternative therapies has been recommended for patients with RA.
Meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery, and relaxation techniques have been used effectively
to control pain. Acupressure and acupuncture have also been used for pain. Body work can
be soothing, decreasing stress and tension, and is thought to improve/restore chemical
balance within the body.
A multitude of nutritional supplements can be useful for RA. Fish oils, the enzymes
bromelain and pancreatin, and the antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E, selenium, and zinc)
are the primary supplements to consider.
Many herbs also are useful in the treatment of RA. Anti-inflammatory herbs may be very
helpful, including turmeric (Curcuma longa), ginger (Zingiber officinale),
feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens),
Chinese thoroughwax (Bupleuri falcatum), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra).
Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) and cramp bark (Vibernum opulus) can be applied
topically to the affected joints.
Homeopathic practitioners recommended Rhus toxicondendron and Bryonia (Bryonia
alba) for acute prescriptions, but constitutional treatment, generally used for
chronic problems like RA, is more often recommended. Yoga has been used for RA patients to
promote relaxation, relieve stress, and improve flexibility. Nutritionists suggest that a
vegetarian diet low in animal products and sugar may help to decrease both inflammation
and pain from RA. Beneficial foods for patients with RA include cold water fish (mackerel,
herring, salmon, and sardines) and flavonoid-rich berries (cherries, blueberries, hawthorn
berries, blackberries, etc.).
RA, considered an autoimmune disorder, is often connected with food
allergies/intolerances. An elimination/challenge diet can help to decrease symptoms of RA
as well as identify the foods that should be eliminated to prevent flare-ups and
recurrences. Hydrotherapy can help to greatly reduce pain and inflammation. Moist heat is
more effective than dry heat, and cold packs are useful during acute flare-ups.