Objective: To investigate the 15-year outcome of patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (ERA) with respect to the continuity of treatment.
Methods: We conducted a 15-year follow-up study of 87 patients with ERA treated since diagnosis with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) according to the 'sawtooth' strategy. The patients were divided into groups according to the continuity of treatment: (A) 'continuous DMARDs', (B) 'discontinued and restarted DMARDs', and (C) 'permanently discontinued DMARDs'. The main outcome measurements included the Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ), the Larsen score, and clinical remission according to the American Rheumatism Association (ARA) criteria.
Results: Seventy (80%) patients participated in the 15-year follow-up. DMARDs were discontinued in 20 (29%) patients due either to remission or to a symptom-free period of the disease. The disease flared up in nine (45%) of these patients, in some patients several years after the discontinuation. At the 15-year follow-up, 59 (84%) patients were on DMARDs; only three (4%) were using biologicals. Functional capacity remained good in all groups (mean HAQ score 0.52). The mean Larsen score was higher (54) in group A than in groups B (25) and C (12) (p =0.001). The remission rate was 64% in group C and considerably lower in groups A (6%) and B (0%) (p<0.001).
Conclusions: Our results indicate that most of the patients with long-standing RA require continuous DMARD treatment. If the treatment is discontinued, patients should be followed-up closely and DMARDs readministered without delay if the disease flares up.