Objective: To evaluate the long-term frequency of disease remissions and the progression of joint damage in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who were initially randomized to 2 years of treatment with either a combination of 3 disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) or a single DMARD.
Methods: In this multicenter prospective followup study, a cohort of 195 patients with early, clinically active RA was randomly assigned to treatment with a combination of methotrexate, sulfasalazine, hydroxychloroquine, and prednisolone or with a single DMARD (initially, sulfasalazine) with or without prednisolone. After 2 years, the DMARD and prednisolone treatments became unrestricted, but were still targeted toward remission. The long-term effectiveness was assessed by recording the frequency of remissions and the extent of joint damage seen on radiographs of the hands and feet obtained annually up to 5 years. Radiographs were assessed by the Larsen score.
Results: A total of 160 patients (78 in the combination group and 82 in the single group) completed the 5-year extension study. At 2 years, 40% of the patients in the combination-DMARD group and 18% in the single-DMARD group had achieved remission (P < 0.009). At 5 years, the corresponding percentages were 28% and 22% (P not significant). The median Larsen radiologic damage scores at baseline, 2 years, and 5 years in the combination-DMARD and single-DMARD groups were 0 and 2 (P = 0.50), 4 and 12 (P = 0.005), and 11 and 24 (P = 0.001), respectively.
Conclusion: Aggressive initial treatment of early RA with the combination of 3 DMARDs for the first 2 years limits the peripheral joint damage for at least 5 years. Our results confirm the earlier concept that triple therapy with combinations of DMARDs contributes to an improved long-term radiologic outcome in patients with early and clinically active RA.