Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic autoimmune rheumatic disorder of unknown etiology.
It is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis.
Patient usually complains of joint pain and/or swelling with morning stiffness that lasts for more than an hour.

Goals of treatment are clinical and radiological remission of disease and to reduce functional limitations and permanent joint damage.

Principles of Therapy

Goals of Early Treatment

  • To achieve sustained clinical and radiological remission of disease
    • Low disease activity within 6 months is a treatment goal alternative in long-standing disease
  • To reduce functional limitations and permanent joint damage

Principles of Treatment

  • It is recommended that early treatment with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) should be initiated as soon as a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis is confirmed to control the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and to limit radiographic damage
    • Baseline studies should be obtained prior to initiation of treatment
    • Screen for hepatitis B, HIV and tuberculosis infection before initiating treatment with biological, targeted synthetic or biosimilar DMARDs 
    • ACR recommends killed (pneumococcal, influenza, hepatitis B), recombinant (HPV) and live attenuated [herpes zoster (except for TNF inhibitors and non-TNF biologics)] vaccines before and during initiation of DMARD therapy
  • A treat-to-target strategy is recommended
  • Disease activity should be monitored frequently, ie every 1-3 months 
  • Treatment goal is almost reached within 3 months and may be attained by the end of 6 months
    • During the 3- to 6-month period, meticulous follow-up should be done and existing treatment should be intensified or changed for another
  • In DMARD-naive patients, conventional synthetic DMARD monotherapy should be considered
  • Methotrexate should be part of the 1st treatment strategy in patients with early and established rheumatoid arthritis
    • Leflunomide or Sulfasalazine should be used when patient has contraindications to Methotrexate therapy
  • As initial short-term treatment, use of low-dose corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as either monotherapy or combination therapy with DMARDs has been shown to provide benefits for symptomatic control
  • If the treatment goal has not been achieved with the 1st DMARD strategy, in the absence of poor prognostic factors, switching to or adding another conventional synthetic DMARD should be considered
    • If poor prognostic factors are present, addition of a biological DMARD or Jak-inhibitor should be considered
  • For patients who are unable to tolerate conventional synthetic DMARD comedication therapy, interleukin-6 receptor antagonists and targeted synthetic DMARDs may have some advantages over other biological DMARDs
  • In the presence of treatment failure with a biological or targeted synthetic DMARD, consider switching to another biological or targeted synthetic DMARD 
  • May consider treatment with another TNF-inhibitor or other DMARDs if patient is unresponsive to previous treatment with a TNF-inhibitor


Conventional Synthetic DMARDs

  • Have the potential to reduce or prevent radiographic progression, improve joint function, maintain joint integrity, and improve the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Choice of initial DMARD should be based on patient’s preferences and existing comorbidities
  • There is no strong evidence that there is a difference in efficacy or safety among Methotrexate, Leflunomide or Sulfasalazine
  • Methotrexate, Leflunomide or Sulfasalazine should be started as early as possible and in cases of persistent symptoms starting within 3 months of onset
  • Methotrexate and Leflunomide are preferred to Sulfasalazine in patients with high disease activity
  • May take up to 8 weeks for effects to be seen thus bridging therapy with corticosteroids is needed

Gold Salts (Parenteral)

  • Recommended as part of the early treatment strategy in patients with contraindication to or intolerance of Methotrexate
  • Patients show improvements from disappearance of rheumatoid nodules, reduction of joint swelling and a fall of CRP levels


  • A treatment option for patients with early or established rheumatoid arthritis if Methotrexate is unavailable or with intolerance
  • In cases of mild or palindromic cases, Hydroxychloroquine is an alternative to oral Methotrexate, Leflunomide or Sulfasalazine
  • Show efficacy as monotherapy or in combination therapy


  • Recommended as part of the initial treatment strategy in patients with contraindication to or intolerance of Methotrexate


  • Recommended as part of the initial treatment strategy 
  • Preferred DMARD for both early and established rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Preferred agent for most combinations and DMARD of choice due its more favorable efficacy and toxicity profiles
  • Can increase the efficacy of biological DMARDs if used in combination therapy
  • Considered as one of the most active compounds in terms of frequency of remissions and time to onset of action


  • Recommended as part of the initial treatment strategy in patients with contraindication or intolerance to Methotrexate
  • One of the most active compounds in terms of frequency of remissions and time to onset of action
  • Provides a good risk-benefit ratio

Targeted Synthetic DMARDs

  • Eg Baricitinib, Tofacitinib, Upadacitinib
  • Janus kinase (Jak) inhibitors are recommended for patients with treatment failure after biological DMARDs
    • May also be considered as initial therapy in DMARD-naive patients
  • Effective in the treatment of both early and established rheumatoid arthritis
  • Other new Jak inhibitors include Peficitinib which has been approved in Japan and Filgotinib which is currently undergoing regulatory evaluation


  • A Jak-1 and Jak-2 inhibitor that showed better efficacy when compared to placebo and other active DMARDs in several studies
    • One study suggested that Baricitinib, whether given alone or in combination with Methotrexate, showed better efficacy rates than a TNF-inhibitor in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis with inadequate response to Methotrexate


  • Inhibits Jak-1 and Jak-3 activity, but may also affect all the Jak isoforms
  • Studies showed that treatment  with Tofacitinib was more beneficial when compared to placebo therapy in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis with inadequate response to Methotrexate
  • One study showed that Tofacitinib monotherapy resulted in significant reductions of signs and symptoms in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis


  • A Jak-1 inhibitor that underwent phase III trial testing as monotherapy and combination therapy in various rheumatoid arthritis populations 
  • Indicated for moderate to severe active rheumatoid arthritis in adults with inadequate response or intolerance to ≥1 DMARDs (with or without Methotrexate or other conventional synthetic DMARDs)

Biological DMARDs

  • Generally target cytokines or their receptors or are directed against other cell surface molecules
  • Monotherapy is recommended for early rheumatoid arthritis patients including all levels of disease activity (low to high)

TNF Inhibitors/Anti-TNF Biologicals

  • Eg Adalimumab, Certolizumab pegol, Etanercept, Golimumab, Infliximab, 
    • Adalimumab is a human-sequence antibody that specifically binds to TNF-α and blocks interaction with cell-surface TNF-α receptors to neutralize its biological function (ie changes in adhesion molecule levels that causes leukocyte migration)
    • Certolizumab pegol is a TNF-α specific Fab fragment of humanized monoclonal antibody which highly binds with soluble and membrane-bound TNF-α that causes inhibition of its activity
    • Etanercept is a recombinant human TNF-α receptor fusion protein that interferes with inflammatory cascade by binding to TNF-α and then blocking its interaction with cell-surface receptors
    • Golimumab is a human monoclonal antibody specific for TNF-α and prevents its interaction by forming high affinity complexes
    • Infliximab is a chimeric monoclonal antibody that neutralizes TNF-α function by binding to it
  • Recommended for the following:
    • Early rheumatoid arthritis patients with high disease activity (with or without Methotrexate)
    • Established rheumatoid arthritis patients with low disease activity where DMARD monotherapy with added Methotrexate, Hydroxychloroquine and Leflunomide have failed
    • Established rheumatoid arthritis patients where 1st TNF inhibitor regimen has failed (ACR recommends switching to another TNF inhibitor or replacing the TNF inhibitor with Abatacept, Rituximab or Tocilizumab)
    • Adalimumab, Etanercept and Certolizumab may be given as monotherapy in patients with intolerance of Methotrexate or if treatment with Methotrexate is considered to be inadequate
    • Certolizumab in combination with Methotrexate is indicated for the treatment of moderate-severe rheumatoid arthritis in patients whose response to conventional synthetic DMARDs including Methotrexate has been inadequate
  • All have been shown to have similar efficacy for clinical remission
  • Not recommended in patients with severe, active and progressive rheumatoid arthritis not previously treated with Methotrexate or other DMARDs
  • Reassess treatment effects every after 3 months
  • Have been shown to increase the risk of serious infection and risk of malignancy
  • Contraindicated in patients with severe congestive heart failure

Non-TNF Biologicals

  • Eg (Costimulation inhibitor) Abatacept; (anti-B cell agent) Rituximab; (interleukin-6 receptor antagonists) Sarilumab, Tocilizumab
  • Reassess treatment effects after 6 months instead of 3 months due to longer peak time in non-TNF biologics
  • Abatacept or Rituximab is recommended for established RA patients with low disease activity or moderate-high disease activity intolerant or unresponsive to Methotrexate monotherapy or combination DMARD therapy
  • Abatacept is recommended for patients with contraindication to Rituximab or when Rituximab is withdrawn due to adverse effect
  • Treatment period of Rituximab should not be more frequent than every 6 months
  • Abatacept-Methotrexate combination is recommended when double DMARD regimen results in treatment failure or toxicity
  • Switching to Tocilizumab is recommended when Rituximab or Abatacept regimen results in treatment failure after 6 months
  • Resuming or starting Rituximab is recommended in rheumatoid arthritis patients with a previously treated melanoma skin cancer, lymphoproliferative malignancy, solid malignancy or nonmelanoma skin cancer within the last 5 years
  • Sarilumab is recently approved for patients with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis with treatment failure after treatment with ≥1 DMARDs
  • Other non-TNF biologicals currently being investigated for rheumatoid arthritis include Clazakizumab and Sirukumab which, based on several studies, showed that the efficacy and safety are comparable to Tocilizumab
    • Studies showed that the efficacy of Sirukumab for moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis is promising but approval for use is yet to be given due to reports of increased mortality

Biosimilar DMARDs

  • Eg Adalimumab-adaz, Adalimumab-adbm, Adalimumab-afzb, Adalimumab-atto, Adalimumab-bwwd, Etanercept-szzs, Etanercept-ykro, Infliximab-abda, Infliximab-axxq, Infliximab-dyyb, Infliximab-qbtx, Rituximab-abbs, Rituximab-pvvr
  • Agents that are highly similar to their reference biologics with comparable safety and efficacy 
  • Considered as effective substitutes for biological and targeted synthetic DMARDs

Combination Therapy

  • Recommended for all early rheumatoid arthritis patients with poor prognosis including all levels of disease activity (low to high), and established rheumatoid arthritis patients with low disease activity and poor prognosis or moderate-high disease activity 
  • A combination DMARD strategy, rather than sequential monotherapy, should be considered in patients with an inadequate response to initial DMARD therapy
  • Most combinations use Methotrexate as a background drug 
  • For early rheumatoid arthritis, combination of DMARDs (including Methotrexate and another DMARD with short-term corticosteroids) can be considered as 1st-line treatment
  • Recommended combinations include double and triple therapy (Methotrexate, Hydroxychloroquine and Sulfasalazine)
  • Examples for double DMARD therapy include Methotrexate and Hydroxychloroquine, Methotrexate and Leflunomide, Methotrexate and Sulfasalazine, and Sulfasalazine and Hydroxychloroquine
  • Combinations of conventional and biological DMARDs have been used to treat moderate-severe rheumatoid arthritis
  • Combination therapy of Methotrexate and biological DMARDs may be considered in DMARD-naive patients with poor prognostic factors
  • For patients in whom DMARD combination therapy is not appropriate, start DMARD monotherapy

Adjunctive Therapy


  • Eg Paracetamol, Aspirin 
  • Used as an adjunct to DMARD and NSAID therapy to provide pain relief


  • Eg Oral: Methylprednisolone, Prednisone, Prednisolone; Intra-articular: Betamethasone, Dexamethasone, Methylprednisolone, Prednisolone, Triamcinolone 
  • Low-dose oral corticosteroids (<7.5 mg/day Prednisone equivalent) can be used in combination with DMARD therapy for short term relief of signs and symptoms, and in the medium to long term to minimize radiological damage
  • It has been shown to improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and reduce radiological damage 
  • In cases of recent onset or established disease flares on adults, short-term treatment may be started to rapidly decrease inflammation 
  • May be considered in patients with moderate to high disease activity in early rheumatoid arthritis
  • Timely dose reductions and cessation are important because of the adverse effects associated with long-term use of corticosteroids
    • Short-term use (<3 months) should be considered during initiation of or when switching to conventional synthetic DMARDs but tapered as rapidly as clinically possible
    • Long-term use may be continued in patients with established disease if all treatment options including biological and targeted synthetic DMARDs have been offered provided that the long-term complications have been fully disclosed 
    • In cases of persistent remission involving combination therapy with DMARDs, corticosteroids should be tapered first
  •  Intra-articular corticosteroids are used to provide rapid, symptomatic relief in the target joints
    • May be administered to any joint not >3-4x/year
  • Oral supplementation with daily calcium (1000-1200 mg) and vitamin D (600-800 IU) should be given to limit bone demineralization
  • Fracture risk assessment should be done in patients with and without established osteoporosis but with moderate to high fracture risk

Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

  • Eg (Acetic acid derivatives) Aceclofenac, Acemetacin, Diclofenac, Etodolac, Indomethacin, Proglumetacin, Sulindac; (Butylpyrazolidine) Phenylbutazone; (Coxibs) Celecoxib, Etoricoxib; (Oxicam derivatives) Meloxicam, Piroxicam, Tenoxicam; (Propionic acid derivatives) Dexketoprofen, Flurbiprofen, Ibuprofen, Ketoprofen, Loxoprofen, Naproxen; (Other NSAID) Nabumetone 
  • Interferes with prostaglandin synthesis through inhibition of the enzyme cyclo-oxygenase
  • Reduces pain, swelling and stiffness caused by rheumatoid arthritis and improves joint function
  • Gastroprotection should be introduced for patients with rheumatoid arthritis at risk of NSAID-associated gastroduodenal ulcers
  • Lowest NSAID dose compatible with symptom relief should be prescribed to be taken for the shortest possible time

Non-Pharmacological Therapy


  • Has been shown to increase muscle strength, improve muscle function and joint stability, increase aerobic capacity and physical performance
  • Can improve the overall pain control and quality of life without increase in disease activity
  • Range of motion exercises help restore or preserve joint motion
  • Exercise programs should be tailored based on patient’s disease severity, body build and previous activity level

Physical Therapy

  • Aimed to provide pain relief, reduction of inflammation and preservation of joint integrity and function
  • Involves passive and active exercises to improve and maintain the range of motion of joints, heat or cold application and relaxation techniques
  • Podiatry referral should be offered to all patients
    • All adults with rheumatoid arthritis are advised to use functional insoles or therapeutic footwear

Occupational Therapy

  • Helps patients maximize physical function and improve their level of independence
  • Focus of therapy is on upper extremity activities
  • May involve education on joint protection and self care, and instruction on the use of assistive devices

Nutrition Therapy and Weight Management

  • Encourage obese patients to lose weight
  • Food rich in fish oil or eicosapentaenoic acid or docosahexaenoic acid may provide decrease in symptoms
  • Patients may follow principles of Mediterranean diet which is composed of a diet rich in bread, fruits, fish and vegetables, less meat, and plant oils


  •  Resting and working splints have been shown to provide pain relief, increase joint stability and improve function
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