Diagnosis and Management of Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Review

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Abstract

Importance

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) occurs in about 5 per 1000 people and can lead to severe joint damage and disability. Significant progress has been made over the past 2 decades regarding understanding of disease pathophysiology, optimal outcome measures, and effective treatment strategies, including the recognition of the importance of diagnosing and treating RA early.

Observations

Early diagnosis and treatment of RA can avert or substantially slow progression of joint damage in up to 90% of patients, thereby preventing irreversible disability. The development of novel instruments to measure disease activity and identify the presence or absence of remission have facilitated new treatment strategies to arrest RA before joints are damaged irreversibly. Outcomes have been improved by recognizing the benefits of early diagnosis and early therapy with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). The treatment target is remission or a state of at least low disease activity, which should be attained within 6 months. Methotrexate is first-line therapy and should be prescribed at an optimal dose of 25 mg weekly and in combination with glucocorticoids; 40% to 50% of patients reach remission or at least low disease activity with this regimen. If this treatment fails, sequential application of targeted therapies, such as biologic agents (eg, tumor necrosis factor [TNF] inhibitors) or Janus kinase inhibitors in combination with methotrexate, have allowed up to 75% of these patients to reach the treatment target over time. New therapies have been developed in response to new pathogenetic findings. The costs of some therapies are considerable, but these costs are decreasing with the advent of biosimilar drugs (drugs essentially identical to the original biologic drugs but usually available at lower cost).

Conclusions and Relevance

Scientific advances have improved therapies that prevent progression of irreversible joint damage in up to 90% of patients with RA. Early treatment with methotrexate plus glucocorticoids and subsequently with other DMARDs, such as inhibitors of TNF, IL-6, or Janus kinases, improves outcomes and prevents RA-related disability. A treat-to-target strategy aimed at reducing disease activity by at least 50% within 3 months and achieving remission or low disease activity within 6 months, with sequential drug treatment if needed, can prevent RA-related disability.

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