Living with a chronic disease affects many aspects of an individual's life. The aim of this study was to compare the health-related quality of life, as measured by the SF-36, in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at disease onset and after 2 years. The results were furthermore compared with those of patients with medium-term disease and a control group. Forty patients with early RA as well as 39 RA patients with 21-25 years of disease duration and 40 controls were asked to answer the self-administered SF-36 health profile measure. Both patients with early RA and with medium-term disease reported significantly lower values for all eight subscales compared with the controls. At follow-up after 2 years, the patients reported significant improvements on the role physical (RP) and bodily pain (BP) dimensions compared with at disease onset. Physical functioning (PF) was perceived as better in patients with early RA compared with patients who had had the disease for 21-25 years. Women reported significantly higher values for some of the scales than men. In summary, health-related quality of life is negatively affected in early RA as measured by the SF-36. An improvement was implicated after 2 years. There were some gender differences in reported health-related quality of life among patients with early RA, but not in patients with medium-term disease.