Objective: The concepts of early intervention and early arthritis clinics for the management of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were introduced almost a decade ago. The evidence for these is diverse and the best therapeutic approach remains vehemently debated. This review addresses these issues.
Methods: The MEDLINE database was searched to identify relevant papers satisfying inclusion criteria for disease duration and no previous use of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Where possible, evidence was obtained from randomized controlled trials. We selected the most relevant topics to best justify early therapeutic intervention in RA.
Results: The benefit of DMARDs over placebo and delayed therapy is unquestionable from the studies presented, with reduction in bone damage and preservation of function. Through prevention of disability, early treatment should be the most cost-effective approach. The evidence presented supports the use of DMARDs when the diagnosis of RA is first made. Delay in treatment may result in irreversible damage. There is insufficient evidence to recommend combination therapy for all patients at disease onset. Further research into newer therapies is required before their routine first-line use is recommended.
Conclusions: Early therapeutic intervention in RA reduces long-term disability and joint damage. Optimal management appears to be the early identification of non-responders and targeted combination therapy. Biological therapies have the potential to revolutionize the treatment of early RA.