Rheumatoid arthritis is one of many autoimmune diseases, where the body’s immune system begins to attack the body’s own tissue. RA results in systemic (throughout the body) inflammation which initially affects the synovium (lining) of the small joints in both the hand and the feet bilaterally, as well as the wrists and ankles (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). It causes pain, stiffness and swelling of the joints.
RA, like most autoimmune diseases, affects significantly more women than men (www.mayoclinic.com) and can be incredibly debilitating. It affects approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population (Arthritis Rheum. 2008;58:15-25). Fortunately, treatments have helped to significantly improve sufferers’ quality of life.
RA may be treated initially with acetaminophen and NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen), depending on its severity. To help stop progression and preserve the joints, disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (known as DMARDs) may be used. They are considered the gold standard of treatment for RA and include methotrexate, which has been around the longest and is a first-line therapy; plaquenil (hydroxycholorquine); and TNF inhibitors, such as Enbrel (etanercept), Humira (adalimumab) and Remicade (infliximab).
DMARDs work by reducing inflammation and acting as immunosuppressives, basically tamping down or suppressing the immune system. These drugs have helped RA patients improve their quality of life, preserving joint integrity and causing RA to go into remission.
The downside of using immunosuppressive drugs
Unfortunately, DMARDs have significant adverse effects. They include black-box warnings of serious or life-threatening side effects, such as opportunistic infections — more likely in combination with other immunosuppressives — and malignancy.
Anecdotally, I recently had a patient who had previously developed pneumonia twice, multiple basal-cell carcinomas and one episode of melanoma. These were attributed to use of a TNF inhibitor.
Skin cancer risk
In 2009, the FDA warned that there is an increased risk of cancer after about 30 months of treatment, especially with TNF inhibitors. A 2011 meta-analysis (a group of 28 studies) found that TNF inhibitors may increase the risk of cancers, including skin cancers (Ann Rheum Dis. 2011 Nov;70(11):1895-904). In four of the studies, there was a 45 percent elevated risk of developing skin cancer other than melanoma. However, in data pooled from two of the studies, there was a 79 percent greater chance of developing melanoma. All the studies in this analysis were observational studies, and the absolute risk of developing cancer is small. The good news is that this analysis did not appear to show increased risk of lymphoma.
Complications from RA
RA can also affect organs and the surrounding tissue. Thus, complications from RA include heart disease, stroke, atrial fibrillation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fracture risk, as well as uveitis and scleritis (inflammatory disorders of the eye).
Patients with RA are at a threefold increased risk of developing coronary artery disease, compared to the general population (Ann Rheum Dis. 2007;66(1):70). Those RA patients who stopped taking statins for high cholesterol and/or heart disease, had a 60 percent increased risk of cardiovascular mortality and a 79 percent increased risk of all-cause death after three months (Arthritis Care Res [Hoboken]. 2012 Mar 29). Though statins have their pitfalls, they can be potentially lifesaving in the right context. Don’t discontinue statins before consulting your physician.
Exercise and fish oil have shown reductions in symptomatology and joint inflammation. In a meta-analysis (a group of 17 trials), omega-3 fish oil reduced joint pain intensity, as reported by patients, minutes of morning stiffness, number of painful joints and NSAID use significantly (Pain. 2007 May;129(1-2):210-23). The dose was at least 2.7 g of EPA plus DHA in the omega-3 fish oil and took at least 12 weeks of treatment to see a benefit.
Exercise is also important to relieve joint pain and stiffness. In a meta-analysis of 14 studies, there was a 69 percent reduction in pain with aerobic exercise (Br J Sports Med. 2011;45(12):1008-1009). Understandably, however, a study found that 42 percent of RA patients don’t work out at the recommended minimum of 10 minutes of moderate exercise daily (Arthritis Care Res [Hoboken]. 2012 Apr;64(4):488-93). The reasons were that half were either not motivated or believed that exercise had no benefit.
In the Iowa Women’s Health Study, results showed that supplemental vitamin D decreased the risk of RA by 34 percent (Arthritis Rheum. 2004 Jan;50(1):72-7). This study involved almost 30,000 women followed over an 11-year period.
The best way to treat an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis is to prevent it with an anti-inflammatory diet, exercise and omega-3 fish oil. Barring that, however, it is encouraging that DMARD treatments may be effective at half the dose once the disease has been suppressed significantly. Therefore, a low-dose pharmacological approach coupled with non-pharmacological lifestyle adjustments may produce the best outcomes with the fewest adverse reactions.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website www.medicalcompassmd.com and/or consult your personal physician.