Introduction: Early treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has been shown to retard the development of joint damage for a period of up to 5 years. The aim of this study was to evaluate the radiologic progression beyond that time in patients with early RA initially treated with a combination of three disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) or a single DMARD.
Methods: A cohort of 199 patients with early active RA were initially randomized to receive treatment with a combination of methotrexate, sulfasalazine, and hydroxychloroquine with prednisolone (FIN-RACo), or treatment with a single DMARD (initially, sulfasalazine) with or without prednisolone (SINGLE). After 2 years, the drug-treatment strategy became unrestricted, but still targeted remission. The radiographs of hands and feet were analyzed by using the Larsen score at baseline, 2, 5, and 11 years, and the radiographs of large joints, at 11 years.
Results: Sixty-five patients in the FIN-RACo and 65 in the SINGLE group had radiographs of hands and feet available at baseline and at 11 years. The mean change from baseline to 11 years in Larsen score was 17 (95% CI, 12 to 26) in the FIN-RACo group and 27 (95% CI, 22 to 33) in the SINGLE group (P=0.037). In total, 87% (95% CI, 74 to 94) and 72% (95% CI, 58 to 84) of the patients in the FIN-RACo and the SINGLE treatment arms, respectively, had no erosive changes in large joints at 11 years.
Conclusions: Targeting to remission with tight clinical controls results in low radiologic progression in most RA patients. Patients treated initially with a combination of DMARDs have less long-term radiologic damage than do those treated initially with DMARD monotherapy.
Trial registration: Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN18445519.