Arthritis Today

Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment


The goals of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) treatment are to:

  • Stop inflammation (put disease in remission)
  • Relieve symptoms
  • Prevent joint and organ damage
  • Improve physical function and overall well-being
  • Reduce long-term complications

To meet these goals, the doctor will follow these strategies:

Early, aggressive treatment. The first strategy is to reduce or stop inflammation as quickly as possible – the earlier, the better.

Targeting remission. Doctors refer to inflammation in RA as disease activity. The ultimate goal is to stop it and achieve remission, meaning minimal or no signs or symptoms of active inflammation. One strategy to achieve this goal is called “treat to target.”

Tight control. Getting disease activity to a low level and keeping it there is what is called having “tight control of RA.” Research shows that tight control can prevent or slow the pace of joint damage.

Medications for RA

There are different drugs used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Some are used primarily to ease the symptoms of RA; others are used to slow or stop the course of the disease and to inhibit structural damage.

Drugs that ease symptoms

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are available over-the-counter and by prescription. They are used to help ease arthritis pain and inflammation. NSAIDs include such drugs as ibuprofen, ketoprofen and naproxen sodium, among others. For people who have had or are at risk of stomach ulcers, the doctor may prescribe celecoxib, a type of NSAID called a COX-2 inhibitor, which is designed to be safer for the stomach. These medicines can be taken by mouth or applied to the skin (as a patch or cream) directly to a swollen joint.

Drugs that slow disease activity

Corticosteroids. Corticosteroid medications, including prednisone, prednisolone and methyprednisolone, are potent and quick-acting anti-inflammatory medications. They may be used in RA to get potentially damaging inflammation under control, while waiting for NSAIDs and DMARDs (below) to take effect. Because of the risk of side effects with these drugs, doctors prefer to use them for as short a time as possible and in doses as low as possible.

DMARDs. An acronym for disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, DMARDs are drugs that work to modify the course of the disease. Traditional DMARDs include methotrexate, hydroxycholorquine, sulfasalazine, leflunomide, cyclophosphamide and azathioprine. These medicines can be taken by mouth, be self-injected or given as an infusion in a doctor’s office.

Biologics. These drugs are a subset of DMARDs. They may work more quickly than traditional DMARDs. They include abatacept, adalimumab, anakinra, certolizumab pegol, etanercept, infliximab, golimumab and rituximab. Each biologic blocks a specific step in the inflammation process. Certolizumab pegol, etanercept, adalimumab, infliximab, and golimumab block a cytokine called tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF), and therefore often are called TNF inhibitors. Anakinra blocks a cytokine called interleukin-1 (IL-1). Abatacept blocks the activation of T cells. Rituximab blocks B cells. Tocilizumab blocks a cytokine called interleukin-6 (IL-6). These medicines are injected or given by infusion in a doctor’s office. Because they target specific steps in the process, they don’t wipe out the entire immune response as some other RA treatments do. In many people with RA, a biologic can slow, modify or stop the disease – even when other treatments haven’t helped much.

JAK inhibitors. A new subcategory of DMARDs known as “JAK inhibitors” block the Janus kinase, or JAK, pathways, which are involved in the body’s immune response. Tofacitinib belongs to this class. Unlike biologics, it can be taken by mouth.


Surgery for RA may never be needed, but it can be an important option for people with permanent damage that limits daily function, mobility and independence. Joint replacement surgery can relieve pain and restore function in joints badly damaged by RA. The procedure involves replacing damaged parts of a joint with metal and plastic parts. Hip and knee replacements are most common. However, ankles, shoulders, wrists, elbows, and other joints may be considered for replacement.

Learn More About Rheumatoid Arthritis