To compare the efficacy of sulphasalazine, methotrexate, and the combination of both in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA), not treated with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs previously, we conducted a double-blind, double-dummy, controlled, clinical trial. One hundred and five patients with active, early RA, rheumatoid factor and/or HLA DR1/4 positive were randomized between sulphasalazine (SSZ) 2000 (maximum 3000) mg daily, or methotrexate (MTX) 7.5 (maximum 15) mg weekly, or the combination (COMBI) of both, and were followed up by a single observer for 52 weeks. The mean change over time per patient, including all visits, in Disease Activity Score (DAS) was: SSZ: -1.6 (95% CI -2.0 to -1.2); MTX: -1.7 (-2.0 to -1.4); COMBI: -1.9 (-2.2 to -1.6); the difference week 0-week 52 (SSZ, MTX, COMBI respectively); DAS: -1.8, -2.0, -2.3, Ritchie articular index: -9.2, -9.5, -10.6, swollen joints: -9.2, -12.4, -14.3, erythrocyte sedimentation rate: -17, -21, -28. Nausea occurred significantly more in the COMBI group. The numbers of drop-outs due to toxicity were SSZ 9, MTX 2, COMBI 5. In conclusion, there were no significant differences in efficacy between combination and single therapy, only a modest trend favouring COMBI. The results of MTX and SSZ were very comparable. Nausea occurred more often in the COMBI group: the number of withdrawals due to adverse events did not differ significantly.