How do medications treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Medications for rheumatoid arthritis are used to alleviate pain, reduce swelling, and in some cases, halt the progression of the disease. Some drugs target the immune system so that it ceases its attack on the joints. There are four main types of drugs that are regularly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis:

  1. NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), like ibuprofen
  2. DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs)
  3. Corticosteroid medications
  4. "Biologic" agents

There are many choices when it comes to medication for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis; all work to different degrees and have varying side effects.

There are newer medications available to help with Rheumatoid Arthritis including abatacept (Orencia), adalimumab (Humira), anakinra (Kineret), etanercept (Enbrel), infliximab (Remicade) and rituximab (Rituxan). You may want to discuss these and the other available treatment options with your doctor to see if they are appropriate for you.

The symptoms of RA are highly treatable in most cases, and new research shows that the long-term outcome can be affected by how quickly the disease is diagnosed and treatment initiated. Consulting with your health care professional, you will find that there is a wide range of options of medications available for modifying the disease and treating pain, swelling and other symptoms.

Drug treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be divided into two categories: drugs that treat the symptoms, and drugs that slow the progression of the disease. Your treatment plan may start with one or the other, or a combination of both, depending on how severe your condition is.

Medications that treat the symptoms of RA include acetaminophen (Tylenol); nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen; and corticosteroids (also known as steroids). These drugs provide rapid pain relief and temporarily reduce inflammation but do not affect disease progression and are generally not used for long-term care.

Medications that slow or stop the disease are called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Intensive treatment with DMARDs can prevent joint damage and send RA into remission, but these are powerful drugs that also weaken the body's immune system and may cause serious side effects. Nevertheless, DMARDs are considered the gold standard in treating rheumatoid arthritis.

DMARDs also provide symptom relief, but unlike NSAIDs and steroids, which offer quick relief from pain and inflammation, DMARDs act more slowly and may take up to 6 months before the benefits can be felt. Intensive DMARD treatment may be combined with pain relievers or steroids for the first few months and should be monitored regularly.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.