Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) therapy rests primarily on the use of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). It has been unequivocally shown that DMARD therapy early in the course of RA retards progression of damage and disability to a larger degree compared with delayed institution; the most effective DMARD is methotrexate (MTX). Moreover, combination therapy including intermediate to high doses of glucocorticoids and combinations of MTX with tumour necrosis factor blockers are more effective than monotherapies. However, early DMARD treatment requires early referral of patients and early diagnosis. This is hampered by the current lack of classification criteria for early RA, since the aim is to prevent destruction from occurring, while RA is typically characterized by the presence of erosions. Novel treatment strategies and therapeutic agents allow us to aim for remission rather than improvement of disease activity. Whether a 'window of opportunity' exists during which effective therapy might lead to cure is still an open issue and will be the focus of clinical trials in the near future.