Objective: Delay of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) therapy is a major contributing factor for poor outcome in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Although early therapy has been shown to be particularly effective, there is still uncertainty about the optimal time point of DMARD introduction. We wanted to test if a therapeutic window of opportunity may exist within the first few months of the disease.
Methods: In this case-control parallel-group study, 20 very early RA (VERA) patients with median disease duration of 3 months were age and gender matched to a group of 20 late early RA (LERA) patients with median disease duration of 12 months until first DMARD initiation. Follow-up time was 36 months. Primary outcome measures were the disease activity score (DAS28) and radiological joint destruction using the Larsen method.
Results: Already after 3 months of DMARD therapy we found a significant difference of improvement in favour of the VERA patients in the DAS28. This trend continued over the study period. At study end the DAS28 showed an improvement of 2.8+/-1.5 in the VERA vs 1.7+/-1.2 in the LERA group (P(c)<0.05). The Larsen scores showed a statistically significant retardation of progression in the VERA compared with the LERA.
Conclusion: Our results indicate that there is a window of opportunity for highly successful treatment of RA in the first year, and especially within the first 3 months of therapy. Thus, early diagnosis and therapy may be the crucial step in achieving optimal control of disease progression and prognosis in RA.