Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Whole New Ball Game

Arthur Bookman, MD, FRCPC, Senior Staff Physician, University Health Centre, Coordinator, Core Residency Rheumatology Program, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), traditionally, has been a difficult and discouraging condition for medical practitioners to treat. In general, physicians have been taxed to contend with the overwhelming physical destruction, as well as the sometimes devastating medical complications, seen in the disease. Our medical schools do not provide sufficient preparation, giving us inadequate tools for recognition of joint disease in general and few tools for following and monitoring disease progression.

Only 10 years ago, the treatment plan for RA was a leisurely-paced pyramid of medications. It began with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs), and flowed through empirical remedies such as gold salts and chloroquine, into newer empirical remedies co-opted from cancer treatment or transplantation, such as methotrexate or imuran in recent years.

Over the last five to 10 years, modern studies have contributed to an evolving understanding of the disease. It is now evident that the diagnosis of RA amounts to a prediction of joint inflammation that will inevitably evolve to joint damage, leading to X-ray evidence of erosion and joint space narrowing. Furthermore, these X-ray changes are markers for loss of function and disability. The evolution of X-ray change over time is constant (Figure 1).