Objective: To evaluate the development of handicap in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) followed 8 years from onset.
Methods: The study group consisted of 106 patients participating in a prospective early RA study. The mean duration of joint symptoms at inclusion was one year. The patients were assessed at least once annually. Disability was measured with the Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ) and emotional distress with a self-administered test (Symptom Checklist). Work status and different social measures were registered. A structured interview regarding work capacity, leisure time, and social activities was performed about 8 years after disease onset.
Results: Compared to study start, disease activity had decreased, emotional distress was unchanged, disability had increased somewhat, and radiographic changes had increased markedly. The prevalence of work disability at the end of the study was 37%. The majority of patients that eventually got disability pension had stopped working the first year after onset. Seventy-eight percent of the patients who continued to work had to adjust their work conditions to stay employed. The 3 most important predictors for work disability were higher HAQ at study start, lower educational level, and older age. Three-quarters of the patients had to alter leisure time activities and half of them were not satisfied with their recreation. Many patients experienced difficulties in their roles as spouse and parent. Higher levels of emotional distress were associated with these handicaps.
Conclusion: In this cohort of patients with RA we found a high frequency of different types of handicaps at an early stage. Slightly more than 1/3 were work disabled. The majority had stopped working during the first year. Patients perceived handicaps in terms of changed leisure time activities, and difficulties performing different social roles were frequent. Patients with these handicaps felt more emotional distress.