Combining Medications Often Best Strategy To Battle Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Rheumatoid Arthritis

For patients with rheumatoid arthritis, combining one well-known, lower cost synthetic drug with one of six biologic medications often works best to reduce joint swelling or tenderness, according to a new report funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). An article based on the report will be posted Monday online in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers reviewed published evidence to compare the benefits and harms of three classes of medications: synthetic disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), biologic DMARDs, and corticosteroids. Synthetic DMARDs include hydroxychloroquine, leflunomide, methotrexate and sulfasalazine; biologic DMARDs include abatacept, adalimumab, anakinra, etanercept, infliximab and rituximab; and corticosteroids include drugs such as prednisone.

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The report concluded that combining methotrexate, a synthetic DMARD, with one of the biologic DMARDs works better than using methotrexate or a biologic DMARD alone. The report also found that methotrexate works as effectively as the biologic DMARDs adalimumab and etanercept for patients who have early rheumatoid arthritis. Adalimumab and etanercept, however, show better short-term results as measured by X-rays of joints. The report also emphasized that biologic DMARDs and methotrexate increase the risk of serious infection, including a reoccurrence of tuberculosis.

"Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful, degenerative disease that affects people of all ages and can profoundly impact quality of life," said AHRQ Director Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D. "This report establishes a clear, unbiased summary of what is known about current treatments. It also identifies areas where more research is needed."

About 2 million Americans have rheumatoid arthritis, a long-term illness that causes joint and tissue inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body confuses healthy tissue for foreign substances and attacks itself. The cause is unknown. The disease often begins with fatigue, morning stiffness, weakness and muscle aches. Eventually, joint pain appears. Pain may affect the wrists, knees, elbows, fingers, toes, ankles or neck. Other symptoms may include anemia, eye burning, limited range of motion, skin redness and swollen glands. Joint destruction may occur within 1 to 2 years after the disease appears. Some cases cause deformities. Treatment typically begins with medications but may include physical therapy and surgery.

Among other findings in the report:

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