Purpose: To compare the effect of delayed and early treatment strategies on disease outcome in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
Subjects and methods: Between 1993 and 1995, 109 patients diagnosed with probable or definite rheumatoid arthritis of recent onset were initially treated with analgesics; if they had persistent active disease, they were treated subsequently with the disease-modifying drugs chloroquine or salazopyrine (delayed treatment). Between 1996 and 1998, similar patients (n = 97) were promptly treated with either chloroquine or salazopyrine (early treatment).
Results: The median lag to the initiation of disease-modifying treatment was 15 days in the early treatment group and 123 days in the delayed treatment group. There was less radiologic joint damage after 2 years in the early treatment group (median Sharp score, 3.5; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1 to 7) compared with the delayed treatment group (median Sharp score, 10; 95% CI: 5 to 15; P <0.05). The median area under the curve of the 2-year disease activity score was lower in the early treatment group (64 units; 95% CI: 59 to 69 units) compared with the delayed treatment group (73 units; 95% CI: 69 to 77 units; P = 0.002).
Conclusion: In this nonrandomized comparison, early introduction of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs was associated with a better disease outcome after 2 years.