What do we know about the safety of corticosteroids in rheumatoid arthritis?

Curr Med Res Opin. 2013 Sep;29(9):1147-60. doi: 10.1185/03007995.2013.818531. Epub 2013 Jul 3.


Background: Clear information is still lacking on the safety of corticosteroids (GCs) therapy in RA despite six decades of clinical experience.

Scope: We performed a literature search in Ovid MEDLINE from January 2000 to December 2012. Our Population Intervention Comparator Outcomes (PICO) strategy search was: rheumatoid arthritis [Population], corticosteroids or glucocorticoids [Intervention], any comparison [Comparator], adverse effects [Outcome]. Studies were selected if they reported any measure of association between GCs intake and potential adverse effects in RA patients.

Findings: We identified 1030 papers and selected for analysis 26 observational studies and six systematic reviews. The major side effects of GCs in RA are bone loss, risk of cardiovascular events and risk of infections as evidenced by large observational studies and not necessarily RCTs. Others associations were reported with herpes zoster, tuberculosis, hyperglycemia, cutaneous abnormalities, gastrointestinal perforation, respiratory infection and self-reported health problems such as cushingoid phenotype, ecchymosis, parchment-like skin, epistaxis, weight gain and sleep disturbance. Other potential adverse effects of GCs were studied but no association was found. These included psychological disorders, dermatophytosis, brain diseases, interstitial lung disease, memory deficit, metabolic syndrome, lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, renal function and cerebrovascular accidents. Most of the evidence emanates from observational researches and the inherent limitations of such data should be kept in mind.

Conclusion: Recent observational data and systematic reviews suggest that GCs can lead to relatively alarming and burdensome side effects in RA. This is particularly true for patients who have longer term and higher dose therapies. GCs are largely used in RA and knowing their safety profile is essential to improve patients care. The design of new therapeutic strategies intended to minimize the daily dosing of GCs while conserving their beneficial effect should be encouraged.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antirheumatic Agents / adverse effects*
  • Antirheumatic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / drug therapy*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / pathology
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Glucocorticoids / adverse effects*
  • Glucocorticoids / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Male


  • Antirheumatic Agents
  • Glucocorticoids