The aim of this review is to describe methods of quantifying disease activity and symptomatology and discuss treatment goals for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The benefits and limitations of existing therapeutic approaches, the importance of early therapy in preventing disease progression and the place of biologicals in early therapy will be discussed. Disease activity and symptomatology in RA are often measured using a set of core endpoints that incorporate pain, patient global assessment, physical disability, swollen joints, tender joints, acute phase reactants, physician global assessment and radiographic imaging of joints. Imaging of joints is the only means by which to measure the effects of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) on the irreversible joint damage that occurs during RA. There is increasing evidence that this damage and its functional consequences occur early in the onset of disease. The consensus is that patients with RA should be treated with DMARDs earlier rather than later in the disease process. Remission, or a state of sustained response or low disease activity that is not damaging or disabling, is the ideal goal of therapy for RA, but formal criteria defining a state of remission need to be revised and, ideally, updated to include a radiographic component. Currently available DMARDs are limited in their ability to achieve early, sustained response or remission, by delayed onset of action, cumulative toxicity and lack of long-term therapeutic response. It is hoped that the emergence of novel DMARDs--targeted biological agents, such as anti-tumour necrosis factor-alpha (anti-TNF-alpha)--will help to counteract such limitations and will allow early DMARD use to be adopted as standard practice in place of their use as a last resort therapy after failure of other treatment. One such biological agent, etanercept, has been shown to reduce radiographic disease progression and induce overall clinical response during the early stages of RA. It is significantly more effective and fast-acting than methotrexate, one of the most effective, commonly used DMARDs.