There are many different kinds of medicine used. They are used for a specific purpose and for a certain kind of arthritis. Some medications are used for several different kinds of arthritis.
One of the first widely used medications for the treatment of arthritis was over-the-counter aspirin. It was and still is available without prescription, at a reasonable cost and is conveniently located. For many years this was the bulk of the medical therapy for arthritis. Aspirin is an anti-inflammatory. It has the ability to reduce or get rid of unwanted inflammation that is common with many forms of arthritis. At first it was just thought to be a symptom reliever. As the years went by and more research was done, they found that reducing the inflammation also helped slow the destruction of the joint components. Aspirin became valuable because it reduced swelling, therefore relieving the symptom, but in the process it also decreased pain and slowed the joint deterioration. It was like a miracle pill. But, as with most great things, it had one big side effect. When aspirin was used in large enough doses to keep inflammation in check, it could cause irritation to the stomach lining and increase the risk and occurrence of stomach ulcers. This was not discovered right away because, even when taken in fairly high doses, it took a while for the problem to develop in the stomach lining. Because scientists didn’t know the dangers of continual, high-dose aspirin intake, years went by before they made the connection between taking aspirin and stomach ulcers. Today it is a documented fact that aspirin can cause stomach-lining irritation and ulcers, but is it still widely used as an arthritis medication?
In the last two years, two new anti-inflammatory medications have been developed. They are considered the “new age” version of the anti-inflammatory. They are referred to as Cox-2 inhibitors. Basically, these medications are a “smarter” version of the old anti-inflammatory medications. These medications inhibit the production of prostaglandins (hormone-like substances that contribute to inflammation but also protect the stomach lining), but somehow recognize the protective ones lining the stomach. So, by taking a Cox-2 inhibitor, one can get the benefits of an anti-inflammatory and hopefully experience less stomach irritation.
People who have osteoarthritis with inflammation as one of the symptoms are usually prescribed an anti-inflammatory medication. If these same people don’t have inflammation, but do have stiffness, pain and loss of function, then they are most often prescribed Tylenol.
Early on, another common medicine called prednisone was used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory forms of arthritis. It came in various forms: pills, in topical creams and by injection. Sometimes people were given the pills and the injections at the same time. The injection was used for more immediate relief, and the pills were to sustain the relief for a longer period of time.
In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, prednisone was also considered a miracle drug. It was not only used for the treatment of arthritis, but for other conditions such as asthma. But, as time went by and more research was done, scientists found that prednisone also had some devastating side effects over the long haul. The most common of these side effects is bone wasting. Prednisone, taken over a long period of time, can highly increase a person’s chances of developing osteoporosis. In addition to that side effect, it can also cause the early formation of cataracts and weight gain. Despite these troublesome effects, prednisone still is used widely today, in low doses for maintenance and in higher doses for a short period of time for an acute flare-up. Since prednisone is prescribed for reducing inflammation, it is only used in the treatment of the inflammatory forms of arthritis.
Medical therapy began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s when scientists’ theories about what caused arthritis changed. Early on, scientists thought it was mostly due to hereditary factors. So, they just focused on treating the symptoms. But as time traveled on, a new theory developed about what caused arthritis. They thought possibly a virus could be the culprit. So, with a new focus came a different kind of medication. Now they wanted to target the virus and develop a medication to kill it. A new class of drugs were developed called disease modifying drugs. These drugs were designed to slow the progression or eliminate the disease altogether. Disease-modifying drugs were used extensively for many years, but eventual destruction of the joint still occurred. It seemed at best that these new drugs were only slowing the devastating effects of the arthritis.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, another theory was born. Now the scientists were focusing on the immune system as the possible target. It seemed that the immune system played an important role in the inflammatory process. For some reason, the body identified itself as the enemy and sent inflammatory cells to kill off the intruders. This over-production of inflammatory cells to the joint site caused the swelling and eventual destruction of the joint. So now the challenge was to develop a medicine to interrupt that immune system response. A number of new disease-modifying drugs were developed or discovered to be useful to doing just that. Some of these drugs had been used for the treatment of other conditions such as cancer and malaria. While being used to treat these other conditions, they also helped with controlling the inflammation caused by the arthritis. As with the other medications, these new disease-modifying drugs also had some worrisome side-effects.
Since these drugs were designed to suppress the immune system, they also decreased a person’s ability to fight off common ailments such as the flu and other viruses. Despite the risks involved in taking these medications, they have been very helpful in slowing the progression of the disease process for many people with inflammatory forms of arthritis. There are a number of these disease-modifying drugs being used today.
Scientists have known for many years that attacking the whole immune system was not the best answer. In the last couple of years, another new line of medications has been developed. These are called “biologic response modifiers.” They are referred to as the “smart bombs” because they target only the part of the immune system that contributes to disease. Since these medications only target part of the immune system, the side effects are minimal, but the disease-modifying benefit is still present. Like all the other medications developed before these, time will tell the real story in how effective they are and whether long-term problems develop.
Fibromyalgia is a form of arthritis that does not affect the joints. It is characterized by muscle pain, fatigue, achiness and a host of other symptoms. Medication used to treat this form of arthritis is very different from those used in osteoarthrtitis and other inflammatory forms of arthritis.
One of the most common complaints of people who have fibromyalgia is sleep disturbance. Doctors often prescribe low doses of antidepressant medication and selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors to restore a normal sleep pattern. When the sleep cycle is restored, many of the other symptoms start to improve. Pain in the muscle is reduced with the help of muscle relaxants and pain medication. The main objective in medical therapy for people with fibromyalgia is to restore their function, which enables them to help themselves get better.
There are many other medications taken for the treatment of other forms of arthritis. In treating inflammatory forms of arthritis, medications are used in combination. This is also true with fibromyalgia. In the case of osteoarthritis, usually only one medication is used to control the symptoms. Controlling symptoms and slowing the disease process through the use of medical therapy is a life-long task. Occasionally, each person’s medical therapy program has to be re-evaluated and adjusted to stay effective. Most medications taken for arthritis need to be taken constantly and without lapses to have the best outcome.
If you are taking medication for the treatment of any form of arthritis, discuss the effectiveness and the side effects of each medication with your doctor or pharmacist before you consent to take it. Usually, a pharmacist is the best source for information concerning medication. Educate yourself and weigh the risks against the benefits over the short term and the long haul before starting a medication. Don’t give up on a medication too early in the start-up process. Many of the anti-inflammatory medications have to be taken up three to six weeks before they reach their maximum benefit to you. Don’t stop taking your medication unless you talk it over with your doctor first. In the case of glucocorticoid-type medications, stopping suddenly can have some unwanted health consequences. Report any usual symptoms or reactions to the medication to your doctor. It is also very important to inform your physician of any “natural” remedies or other over-the-counter medication you are taking. This will avoid a possible unwanted drug interaction that could be very harmful to your general health.]]>
This article and the articles to follow are intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Any concerns or questions you may have about steroids or any other aspect of your treatment should be discussed with your doctor.
Note: Although steroids are available in dozens of different forms and brands, for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the oral form of steroids as Prednisone.
Prednisone: The History
After serving as the Chief of Medical Service and Director of the Army’s Rheumatism Centre during World War II, Philip Showalter Hench returned to work at the Mayo Clinic and continued his twenty year research in rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders. By the late 1940’s, it had become clear to Hench and others that in order to bring autoimmune diseases under control, it was necessary to suppress inflammation and the immune system. However, finding an effective agent remained elusive.
It was during this search that Hench began to notice a certain phenomenon among his patients. During pregnancy and in the presence of jaundice, the severe pain of rheumatoid arthritis decreased and in some cases, even disappeared. Hench, along with his colleague, Edward Calvin Kendall, began to consider the steroids of the adrenal glands as the endogenous substance “X” by which RA might be controlled and even cured, saying:
“Substance X…probably was a biologic compound specific in nature and function, one which was normal to the human organism and of which, perhaps, the arthritis patient did not have enough. Since pregnancy alters the concentrations of hormones, we began to suspect that substance X might be a bisexual steroid hormone.”
In 1948, Hench and Kendall tested their theory on a middle-aged woman afflicted with severe RA. After receiving a series of corticosteroid injections over several weeks, the woman’s symptoms disappeared and she got up and walked away from the bed in which she had been confined for several years.
Amazed by the results, Hench and Kendall treated other similarly affected patients. After only a few days, people who were so badly crippled that they couldn’t rise from a chair, shave, open a door or even lift a cup were walking and even dancing. Medical experts throughout the world hailed cortisone as a “miracle drug” and a cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Not surprisingly, P.S. Hench and E.C. Kendall were awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
By then, however, steroids were beginning to show its dark side. Patients taking cortisone in doses high enough to reduce inflammation were experiencing the now well-known side effects: increased appetite and weight gain; fat deposits in chest, face, upper back and stomach; water and salt retention leading to swelling and edema; high blood pressure; diabetes; osteoporosis; cataracts; acne; muscle weakness; thinning of the skin; increased susceptibility to infection; stomach ulcers; psychological problems such as depression; and adrenal suppression and crisis. In some cases, the cure became worse than the disease.
Despite the risk of dangerous side effects, however, cortisone treatment is still very much in use, simply because it is often the only effective drug available. Prednisone is used to treat hundreds of disorders, many forms of cancer, including leukemia; lupus, vasculitis, asthma, meningitis, ulcerative colitis, allergies, tuberculosis, Myasthenia Gravis, dozens of skin disorders, including psoriasis; eye disease, pneumonitis, vasculitis, organ transplants (to prevent the body’s normal inflammatory reaction to foreign tissue and infection), and even autism.
Unfortunately, many people (and in some cases, doctors) have become so leery of “scare-oids” that they have refused much-needed treatment. And, while it is true that long-term use of Prednisone at high doses can cause serious side effects, when used judiciously, Prednisone can literally be a life-saver, especially when inflammation in the heart, lung, eyes and blood vessels are involved. A severe flare can cause extensive damage to joints and cartilage over time, but even in the most severe cases, Prednisone can often provide immediate relief.]]>
Really? Well, who would ever guess?
Apparently, not the researchers who conduct these very expensive, often taxpayer supported studies. Personally, I would like to use some of my wasted tax dollars to pay off some of my medical debts…or, here’s an idea: maybe I could use the money to get a couple of degrees so I, too, could afford to have arthritis.
Sorry. Guess that struck a nerve.
Still, if it weren’t for comments like that, the odious expression “Well, duh!” would have fallen the way of “far out” and “radical, dude!” into slang death. Of course, well-to-do people deal with RA better…they’re the few people in this country who can afford RA. Not only can they afford a rheumatologist, they can afford to go to Mayo or Duke or Johns Hopkins to get the full arthritis spa treatment: JAMA superstar rheumatologist, specially trained nurse, physical therapist, occupational therapist and even a psychiatrist to help with the transition. Afterwards, they can drive straight to their pharmacist with a prescription for Enbrel—absolutely secure in the fact that their insurance will cover it—and go back to their jobs which involve telling other people what they should build/design/type.
So, do I resent rich people? Hell, no. I resent that I can’t afford to be healthy. Without a doubt, America offers the finest medical training, technology and treatment in the world and yet we are ranked 12th in health care. (Italy, if you are interested, ranks number one). Sin is not a word that I frequently use, but I truly believe that it is a sin for anyone to be denied adequate medical care because they lack money…and as much as I love this great country of ours (and who isn’t patriotic, these days?), I believe that this have/have not system of health care is one of its greatest shortcomings.
Often, while on this subject, someone will say to me, “Yes, and look at the animals in prison. All of their medical treatment is paid for by you and me…” usually followed by the suggestion that bad people be put in a dungeon/ on a deserted island/ to death. My beliefs are even more radical: I believe that all members of the species Homo sapiens—even those of the slimy, single-cell variety—are entitled to health care. I honestly believe that it is our right as human beings to be treated when we are sick, no matter what our financial situation.
Don’t get me wrong: I may be a pinko, commie liberal, but I don’t have the first clue as to how to reform the health care system; I also respect that doctors, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies would like to enjoy the fruits of a free market society as much as the next guy. (I also recognize that—given the times—it may be years before health care reform is even mentioned again).
I do, however, have an idea on how to get the lawmakers in this country to at least think about the high costs of health care: let’s take away their fancy health benefits. Why not? You and I pay for it, we should be able stop paying for it. Let these fat cats pay for their own colonoscopies and bypass surgeries. Maybe after shelling out $300-$1500 a month for prescriptions, they might decide it’s in their best interest to spend a little time studying solutions for an overlooked national crisis.
In the Meantime…
Some of the more astute readers out there may have detected that I am slightly bitter about this issue. You’re wrong…I’m very bitter. I’ve just concluded a two-year fight with my insurance company over Remicaide (they have finally conceded, if only to shut me up…but they still won’t pay for Enbrel), and while I am grateful to finally be able to use Remicaide, I can’t help but be angry for that wasted time, for all those flares, for the new deformities, and…for all those other people out there who are slowly being crippled because they, too, can’t afford to be healthy.
Or can they? Those who can afford to shell out $12,000 a year for Remicaide/Enbrel can afford the Cadillac-brand of health insurance that already pays 100% of prescription/hospitalization. And I’m not talking about the truly poor, who can qualify for Medicaid—which also pays out 100%. I’m talking about people whose insurance pays 70 or 80%. I’m talking about me (because when I really get angry, it’s usually because I’m mad at myself).
It wasn’t that my insurance company wouldn’t pay for Remicaide at all…it was that (and I won’t bore you with the details of why) they would only pay 70%. Well, by my calculations, 70% of $12,000=forget it. So I fought them and did without for two years, limping about the house and secretly resenting my husband for not saying, “Just go ahead and do it…we’ll manage somehow.”
And I’m the one who hates martyrs.
I know that I’ve used this analogy before, so bear with me: if I had cancer, I would do whatever it took to get well. If I had to hold fundraisers, collect cans by the side of the road, sell my body for pocket change…you name it, I would do it. So why didn’t I take my own treatment as seriously? Rheumatoid arthritis, if not treated, can ultimately be fatal. But, because it’s not fatal tomorrow, I think that many of us are shortchanging our health because we don’t want to add (more) financial strain on our families.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it many times again: medicine is just as important as food. Just as you don’t need to ask permission to eat, you don’t need anybody’s permission to pay for proper medical treatment.
Are you sure you can’t afford your medical care? Do you have cable? Do you drive a late-model car? Do you cave when your children insist on labels instead of clothes? Most of us could cut expenses if we had to….and guess what, we have to.
And, because I am psychic (a lie…if I were psychic, I would be rich and this article probably wouldn’t even occur to me), I know what many of you are probably saying by now: haven’t I sacrificed enough? Hasn’t my family? Yes, of course you have…it’s obscene how much many of us have sacrificed and I doubt that any of us have unaffected families, either. But suppose the treatment you are denying yourself really worked! Perhaps you would even feel well enough to get/retain a job. In other words, denying yourself adequate medical treatment may actually be an exercise in false economy.
Please do not get me wrong. Smile warrior that I am, I am also deeply in debt. Even with insurance grudgingly picking up 90% of the tab, my medical expenses run roughly $300-$500 a month…and that’s not including treatment for my son’s asthma or my daughter’s chronic—and very debilitating—migraines. Every month, I scheme and scramble—through eBay or making and selling this and that—to come up with a hundred here and there to at least put a dent in our debt and keep my already-resentful husband from going on one of his tirades.
It has occurred to me that not only will some people remain silent in the face of need, they will sleep well at night if you are crippled because of it…and to hell with that. Even I’m not that much of a martyr.
So, though I scheme and scramble, I also remain resolute: I will get proper treatment…if I have to sell my soul to the hospital, I will not go without proper medical care again, nor will I ask permission to do so. And neither should you.]]>
Is your doctor a board certified rheumatologist? If not, you might be cheating yourself out of the care you deserve. Ask yourself this question: if you had cancer, would you see a family practitioner or an oncologist? That may sound extreme, but if not treated properly, RA can potentially be fatal. So, while your PCP may the ideal doctor to maintain your general health, a disease as complex as rheumatoid arthritis needs to be treated by a specialist.
According to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), a rheumatologist is “an internist or pediatrician who is qualified by additional training and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis and other diseases of the joints, muscles and bones. Furthermore, many rheumatologists also conduct research to determine the cause and better treatments for these disabling and sometimes fatal diseases.” And if you have experienced persistent pain in your joints, muscles or connective tissues—especially if symptoms persist for six weeks or longer—a rheumatologist is the doctor you should see.
It is estimated that there are over 100 different types of arthritic diseases (some say as many as 175). Anything ranging from infection to cancer can look like or be involved with joint pain. While all doctors study rheumatic conditions, it would be impossible for the average PCP to stay current on all the different types of diseases and treatments. Even if your PCP is a top-notch physician, he/she can not measure up to the educational standards of a rheumatologist:
* Four years medical school (internal medicine or pediatrics)
* 2-3 years specialized rheumatology training in the rheumatology department of a working hospital
* Since most rheumatologists choose to become certified, they must pass a rigorous exam conducted by the American Board of Internal Medicine
* Many rheumatologists also participate in regular continuing education programs
And rheumatologists aren’t limited to treating the more than 100 different types of arthritis. They also treat certain autoimmune diseases such as lupus, back pain, osteoporosis, musculoskeletal pain disorders such as fibromyalgia, and tendonitis. Their education and experience allow them to accurately evaluate symptoms and determine the correct diagnosis. The importance of early diagnosis in arthritic conditions (particularly RA) has been proven, but often symptoms are difficult for the average doctor to diagnose.
For example, if a patient is suspected of having RA, most doctors will routinely test their blood for presence of the rheumatoid factor. However, it is estimated that 25% of people with rheumatoid arthritis are known as seronegative and will never develop the rheumatoid factor. Moreover, the rheumatoid factor has also been found in people with other autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, mononucleosis and even leukemia. So how can a doctor really know whether a patient has RA or some other condition?
A rheumatologist will be able to tell because he/she has been specially trained to correctly analyze specific blood tests. He has also been trained to take a complete medical history, to give the patient a comprehensive physical exam, and what to look for when viewing diagnostic x-rays. After carefully listening to the patient and analyzing the data, a rheumatologist will be able to pinpoint certain patterns of symptoms that another doctor might overlook. Once he/she diagnoses the disease, an individualized treatment plan will be prescribed.
Brave New World
We are fortunate that—if we must have arthritis—this is the time to have it. In the past few decades, many RA patients were treated with little more than aspirin and Prednisone. We still have aspirin and Prednisone, but now we also have NSAIDS, COX-II inhibitors like Celebrex, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate and Arava and the new biologic agents, Enbrel and Remicaide. Yet recently, I met a woman who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and her family practitioner had prescribed only naproxen. She was in a great deal of pain, but accepted it because her doctor had told her, “You’re just going to have to learn to live with pain.”
Since rheumatologists recognize that treatments of arthritic conditions are changing (and improving) rapidly, many of them participate in ongoing educational programs to be as current as possible. Just a few years ago, even rheumatologists began treating new patients with only NSAIDs and maybe Plaquenil. If his or her symptoms did not improve, then they might try corticosteroids and DMARDs. Now, however, many rheumatologists believe in more aggressive treatment, often starting a patient on a DMARD like methotrexate and then escalating to “combination therapy” (e.g. biologic agent such as Remicaide in combination with a DMARD) if they don’t respond. This new, “aggressive” approach minimizes the chance for deformity, disability and lessens the severity of the symptoms. In rare cases, it could possibly bring about spontaneous remission.
These drugs are not without risks, however, and your rheumatologist is the most qualified doctor to monitor these drugs for possible side effects or drug interactions. He or she is also well versed in other forms of treatment, such as the use of heat/ice, exercises and orthotics and can provide referrals to appropriate professionals or agencies. If asked, he/she can even refer some patients to clinical trials. Often, patients don’t mind being a “guinea pig” if there is a chance of lessening their symptoms.
Someone once told me, “You have completed successful rheumatology training when you can look patients in the eye and say ‘I don’t know’”.
Steven S. Overman, M.D.
“I Can’t See a Rheumatologist Because…
Still, only a minority of RA patients see a rheumatologist. Many people are under the misconception that they can’t afford a rheumatologist. And it’s true—a specialist does charge more money than a family practitioner. In the long run, however, a rheumatologist could actually help you save money. A rheumatologist saves you money by:
* Diagnosing your condition more quickly
By diagnosing your condition/disease more quickly than a PCP, you are able to avoid unnecessary blood tests, office visits and second or third opinions.
* Specially tailoring your treatment
By pinpointing which treatment is best for you, you save money on unnecessary and possibly ineffective treatments.
* Reducing the severity of your symptoms
Which could lead to you keeping or attaining employment; it also prevents the kind of deformities that could lead to permanent disability.
But sometimes seeing a rheumatologist is easier said than done. Unfortunately, there are thousands more people with arthritis than there are rheumatologists and the rheumatologists out there are spread pretty thin. I drive 90 miles round-trip to see my rheumatologist…and consider myself lucky. Often, people (especially in rural areas) live hundreds of miles away from a qualified rheumatologist…and if they felt well enough to drive hundreds of miles, they probably wouldn’t need a rheumatologist. Still, one might be closer than you think. If you would like help in locating a certified rheumatologist, ACR offers a Geographic Membership Directory.
So, you found a rheumatologist, but your insurance won’t pay for a specialist? Fight. You heard me—fight them and don’t give up until you get a satisfactory answer. You are entitled to appeal any decision that you feel is unfair. If you have exhausted all of your appeals and you still haven’t found satisfaction, contact you state insurance commissioner. You’d be surprised how a call from the insurance commissioner can lead to results. In the meantime, there are other sources of financial aid. ACR lists several sources of Assistance . Don’t let pride stand in the way of your health!
But My Doctor’s So Nice!
Sure he is…but he is also a professional and should be able to recognize his limitations. According to a study published by the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), 1355 patients with RA were followed for 3.9 years. 45%-60% were treated by a family practitioner, while rheumatologists treated the remaining patients. Researchers found that the quality of care for those patients without rheumatologists was insufficient. However, the family practitioners were superior to the rheumatologists in providing basic health maintenance.
In other words, this isn’t about firing your doctor. Ideally, your rheumatologist and your PCP should work as a team, consulting each other whenever there is a question or a problem. Nowadays, most PCPs will automatically refer any patient with an arthritic condition to a rheumatologist, anyway (assuming availability). And if he/she is offended by the suggestion, you not only need a rheumatologist, you need a new PCP…someone with a sounder self-esteem.]]>