Landmark studies published in the 1980s were the first to reveal the long-term consequences of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Instead of the benign outcomes previously reported from early population studies, disability, deformity and excess mortality were evident. At this time, the conventional pyramid approach was the standard for therapeutic intervention. Patients were initially treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug with rest and splinting a approach. Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs and corticosteroids were reserved for patients with joint damage and disability, who had 'earned their treatment' and the perceived risk of toxicity. Thus irreversible damage and disability occurred prior to effective therapy being instituted, with the consequences of poor outcomes. The late 1980s saw the introduction of the concept of early intervention in RA and, shortly after, the introduction of specialist clinics for early assessment of patients with inflammatory arthritis (IA), so-called 'early arthritis clinics' (EACs). Such clinics, initially in large research units, targeted patients with early RA or IA with the potential to evolve to RA, with the aim of early case definition and treatment. After all, the common sense approach to treatment of a chronic inflammatory, destructive condition would be to treat it effectively from its onset, prior to the development of irreversible damage. The detailed documentation undertaken in these clinics subsequently provided much information regarding persistence and prognosis in early IA. Since their initial introduction, EACs have become commonplace, not only in academic units, but also kas part of clinical service provision in many institutions. This review details what an EAC is, who should be referred and when, and the benefits and potential future benefits of their introduction.