Taking Medications for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis With Medications

For most people who have rheumatoid arthritis, treatment also involves taking medications. Some rheumatoid arthritis medicines are used only for pain relief, while others are used to reduce inflammation. There is also another class of medications, often called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), that is used to try to slow down the course of the disease.
Some important factors for deciding which medication is most appropriate as part of a treatment plan for rheumatoid arthritis include the:
  • Person's general condition
  • Current and predicted severity of the illness
  • Length of time he or she will take the drug
  • Drug's effectiveness and potential side effects.
(Click Rheumatoid Arthritis Medication to learn about commonly used medications, along with their uses and effects, side effects, and monitoring requirements.)
Biologic response modifiers are new drugs that are used in rheumatoid arthritis treatment. They can help reduce inflammation and structural damage to the joints by blocking the action of cytokines, proteins in the body's immune system that trigger inflammation during normal immune responses. Three of these drugs -- etanercept (Enbrel®), infliximab (Remicade®), and adalimumab (Humira®) -- reduce inflammation by blocking the reaction of TNF-alpha molecules. Another drug, called anakinra (Kineret®), works by blocking a protein called interleukin 1 (IL-1) that is seen in excess in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Abatacept (Orencia®) is a new biologic response modifier that seems to prevent T cells from becoming active. T cells are a type of white blood cell (leukocytes) that play an important role in rheumatoid arthritis.
For many years, healthcare providers initially prescribed aspirin or other pain-relieving drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, as well as rest and physical therapy. Other more powerful drugs were prescribed only if the disease worsened.
Today, however, many healthcare providers have changed their approach, especially for people with severe, rapidly progressing rheumatoid arthritis. Studies show that early treatment for rheumatoid arthritis with more powerful drugs and the use of drug combinations instead of one medication alone may be more effective at reducing or preventing joint damage. Once the disease improves or is in remission, the healthcare provider may gradually reduce the dosage or prescribe a milder medication.
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