Patients With Early Arthritis May Need Tailored Treatments

Laird Harrison

February 02, 2021

Patients with early, undifferentiated arthritis may benefit from milder or stronger treatments, depending on the number of their risk factors for developing rheumatoid arthritis, researchers say.

If the finding is borne out by further research, clinicians could consider treating some of these patients with hydroxychloroquine, steroids, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) rather than methotrexate, said Pascal de Jong, MD, PhD, a rheumatologist at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

"Maybe those patients with fewer risk factors should get less intensive treatment," he told Medscape Medical News. The study by de Jong and colleagues was published online January 23 in Rheumatology.

The European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology recommends starting treatment with methotrexate for patients who are at risk for persistent arthritis, which it says is "factually synonymous" with rheumatoid arthritis.

But these recommendations are based on studies involving patients with established rheumatoid arthritis, de Jong said.

In an earlier study, he and his colleagues found that hydroxychloroquine can be just as effective as methotrexate for patients newly diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis who don’t have autoantibodies. This led them to wonder whether their findings might apply to some subgroups of patients with early arthritis.

As an initial test of this idea, they identified 130 patients from the Rotterdam Early Arthritis Cohort (tREACH) trial who had at least one swollen joint but who did meet the diagnostic criteria for rheumatoid arthritis.

They sorted the patients into groups on the basis of the number of risk factors for persistent arthritis. The risk factors were autoantibody positivity (rheumatoid factor and/or anticitrullinated protein antibody), polyarthritis (more than four swollen joints), erosive disease, and elevations in levels of acute-phase reactants.

Thirty-one patients had none of these risk factors, 66 patients had one risk factor, and the remaining 33 patients had at least two risk factors.

After 2 years of follow-up, 74% of the patients who had had no risk factors had recovered from their arthritis and had not taken disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for at least 6 months (DMARD-free remission). Among the patients who had had one risk factor, 48% achieved DMARD-free remission. Among those who had had two risk factors, 45% achieved DMARD-free remission. The differences between the group that had had no risk factors and the other two groups were statistically significant (P < .05).

The researchers found that those patients who had been experiencing their symptoms for fewer than 6 months were more likely to achieve disease-free remission.

They also sorted patients into different groups on the basis of the treatments they received. One group of 30 comprised all patients who had been initially treated with methotrexate and included patients who had also received other drugs. One group of 40 received hydroxychloroquine initially, and one group of 60 comprised patients who had received no DMARDs initially and included those who had received NSAIDs or glucocorticoids.

There was no statistically significant difference in DMARD-free remission rates among the treatment groups. However, among those patients who were not treated initially with DMARDs, the chance of sustaining DMARD-free remission for more than a year was lower in comparison with the patients who received methotrexate initially (odds ratio, 4.28; 95% CI, 1.34 – 13.72; P < .05).

Those patients who had fewer baseline risk factors were more likely to have their medication dosages tapered, and they were at lower risk for flares. Patients with more risk factors were more likely to require an intensificiation of treatment, such as with the use of biologicals.

Methotrexate is more likely to cause side effects such as nausea, fatigue, and hair loss than hydroxychloroquine, de Jong said. "If the medication is better tolerated, it also influences the compliance of the patient," he said.

The study could help rheumatologists determine which patients need the most aggressive treatment, agreed Kevin Deane, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine, Division of Rheumatology, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, Colorado. "That's a common clinical problem," he said. "Somebody comes in with sort of mild arthritis, and you don't quite know what it is yet."

But he added that more research is needed to understand what treatment works best for those patients whose arthritis has not yet been differentiated. Primary care physicians who suspect inflammatory arthritis should refer their patients to rheumatologists and should test for rheumatoid factors and anticyclic citrullinated peptide, Deane said.

The authors and Deane have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Rheumatology. Published online January 23, 2021. Full text

Laird Harrison writes about science, health and culture. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and online publications. He is at work on a novel about alternate realities in physics. Harrison has taught writing at San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley Extension, and the Writers Grotto. Visit him at lairdharrison.com or follow him on Twitter: @LairdH.

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