The rheumatoid arthritis patient in the clinic: comparing more than 1,300 consecutive DMARD courses

D Aletaha, J S Smolen
Rheumatology 2002, 41 (12): 1367-74

BACKGROUND: Therapy of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is typically characterized by the sequential use of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). This study aimed to reveal treatment patterns with traditional DMARDs and their changes during the two decades before the recent introduction of new DMARDs.

METHODS: A total of 593 RA patients were followed from their first presentation to our clinic throughout the course of their disease; 222 patients received their first DMARD therapy while under our care. More than 2,300 patient years of therapy were analysed for the efficacy [using C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) as surrogates] and duration of drug therapy of consecutive DMARDs.

RESULTS: Before 1985, 65-90% of initial DMARDs were gold compounds, but their use decreased continuously thereafter. Antimalarial (AM) drugs were important initial DMARDs in new patients at all times, whereas sulphasalazine (SSZ) and methotrexate (MTX) gained increasing significance after 1985 (the first DMARD was MTX in up to 29% of new patients). Penicillamine (DPA), azathioprine (AZP), cyclosporin (CyA) and combination therapies were not usually employed initially, but were reserved for the later course of the disease. Gender, age and rheumatoid factor were not different between patients receiving different DMARDs. The baseline acute-phase response was higher in patients treated with MTX (mean CRP 3.5 mg/dl) than in those treated with SSZ (CRP 2.4 mg/dl; P < 0.05) or AM (CRP 2.1 mg/dl; P < 0.05), suggesting that MTX was used preferentially in patients with high disease activity. On the other hand, once AM or SSZ had been discontinued, MTX was the most common subsequent DMARD (in 31 and 56% respectively). Comparison of first DMARDs with subsequent ones revealed that first DMARDs were more effective: the acute-phase response decreased most prominently during first therapies (CRP reduction was 1.28 mg/dl during first courses and 0.35 mg/dl during fourth or later courses; P < 0.01); and retention rates were significantly longer for first compared with subsequent therapies (median of 24.5 months for first and 18.6 months for fourth or subsequent therapies; P < 0.001).

CONCLUSION: MTX was the most commonly employed DMARD therapy for RA and was used increasingly as first therapy in newly diagnosed RA. Patients with high disease activity were given MTX therapy more often than other DMARDs, while those with low activity were more likely to receive SSZ or AM, and MTX on failure of these drugs. First DMARDs in new patients were retained longer than subsequent DMARDs, apparently because they are more effective.

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