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Am J Med. 1988 Oct 14;85(4A):39-44.

Role of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs versus cytotoxic agents in the therapy of rheumatoid arthritis.

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Division of Rheumatology, University of Utah School of Medicine, Salt Lake City 84132.


Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs are used to modify or alter the rheumatoid arthritis disease process. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs do not demonstrate the characteristic analgesic, antipyretic, and anti-inflammatory actions of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, since weeks or months of treatment are required before clinical benefit is observed. Although they have not been proved to delay, prevent, or reverse articular damage, therapy with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, when successful, is associated with decreased pain and joint swelling and improved function. Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs and cytotoxic agents should not be considered as routine treatment for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Before disease-modifying antirheumatic drug therapy is implemented, an optimal basic program of physical therapy, rest, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs should be implemented, and it must be documented that the patient still has sufficient disease to justify the costs, risks, and benefits of these treatments. Drugs that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are preferred over nonapproved drugs. Hydroxychloroquine, parenteral gold salts, oral gold, D-penicillamine, and the cytotoxic drug azathioprine are the FDA-approved disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs for use in rheumatoid arthritis. Many, not all, rheumatologists would employ hydroxychloroquine as the first-choice disease-modifying antirheumatic drug in patients who have early, mild, and nonerosive disease; treatment should be continued for six months before being abandoned for lack of efficacy, and appropriate ophthalmologic examination every four to six months is indicated. An alternative would be auranofin, whose efficacy approaches that of parenteral gold, yet may be safer. For patients who have severe active rheumatoid arthritis, especially with erosive changes, parenteral gold salts are usually a first choice. D-penicillamine is also effective in controlling the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, but serious toxicity may occur. Azathioprine might be considered a competitor to D-penicillamine, although the FDA approval restricts its use to patients who have failed gold therapy. Two cytotoxic drugs that are not FDA approved are methotrexate and cyclophosphamide. Methotrexate can be very effective, but its side effects, particularly pulmonary and hepatic, must be carefully monitored. Cyclophosphamide is generally considered too toxic for use in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, although it may be helpful in patients with systemic rheumatoid vasculitis or patients who have failed all other therapies.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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