RA Remission Is Possible—But Too Rare

Smiling senior couple in garden

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), what would an ideal treatment look like? For starters, it would relieve your symptoms completely -- no stiff or painful joints anywhere in your body. (Doctors call this "remission.") And then the symptoms wouldn't come back for years, if ever. (Doctors call that "sustained remission.")

The good news is that, with today's medications that fight the disease at the source -- called "DMARDs" -- sustained remission is possible for many people with RA.

Unfortunately, too few people get such successful treatment.

A study presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the British Society for Rheumatology found that just 12% of people with RA reached sustained remission, which the researchers defined as having no joint symptoms for three annual checkups in a row. Worse, the majority of the 868 people never achieved remission during the five years they were tracked. The rest were symptom-free some of the time.

That's bad news, because people in remission feel better, are less limited in their activities, have less joint damage -- and even live longer.

So, why do some people reach remission but not others? In the study, women who started treatment within the first three months of symptom onset were more likely to do so, while those with more severe disease had worse odds. Beyond that, experts don't yet know.

Still, there are smart things you can do to ensure that you get the best treatment and the best chance of beating RA:

Work closely with your doctor. The latest guidelines call for early, aggressive treatment to stop RA inflammation and joint damage in its tracks. If you're not yet seeing a rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in joint diseases and is the most up-to-date on the newest RA treatments), ask for a referral. Expect to see your doctor at least every three months at first. Find a doctor in your area.

Tell your doctor what's working (or not). Most people with RA have to switch treatments at least once. RA medications often have side effects, and you may need to try a different drug or a combination of drugs. If your treatment isn't working as well as you'd like or the side effects are bothersome, speak up.

Don't give up. Even with the best treatments, flare-ups can happen from time to time. If one strikes, stick to your treatment plan, call your doctor and be sure to rest your painful joints. On the other hand, if you've been symptom-free for a long time, you may think you can stop your meds. Don't! The disease will come back without continued treatment.

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