Treatment options for many chronic medical conditions have become more advanced, targeted, and effective. But these breakthroughs are only as powerful as your commitment to adhering to them. Forgetting to take your medication or skipping it because you’re feeling well that day can worsen symptoms or impact your disease progression over time.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is one example of a chronic condition in which treatment compliance is a big concern for doctors. Studies have shown that treatment adherence rates could be as low as 30 percent, according to a 2012 article in the journal Expert Review of Clinical Immunology.
“Unfortunately, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition,” says Ashira Blazer, MD, rheumatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It means you have to take something to manage it over time.”
Here are the common mistakes patients make with medications for RA, according to Dr. Blazer.
1. You stop taking meds when you’re feeling better.
Because the symptoms of RA naturally dip and flare over time, patients may think their condition has gone away and take their medications less strictly. “Many people feel that they may be cured or maybe it will never come back,” says Dr. Blazer, “and they stop taking their medications.”
But a medication regimen for RA is not like simply taking ibuprofen for a headache. Just because the pain is gone doesn’t mean you can ditch the pills. Whether or not you’re experiencing symptoms, inflammatory disease activity is still occurring behind the scenes.
“Sometimes there’s inflammation that’s ongoing that you don’t know about,” says Dr. Blazer. “It’s damaging your joints or it’s making you more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.”
And then, of course, you’re putting yourself at risk for a future RA flare-up. Keeping disease activity low is much easier than having a flare and trying to get the disease back under control. (Here are other habits that make RA flares worse.)
2. You take steroids long term.
When cortisone was introduced as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in 1949, it was considered a “miracle drug” to target inflammation, according to the Arthritis Foundation (AF). But corticosteroids, also called glucocorticoids, are good for certain circumstances but not others.
“Steroids tend to make patients feel better quickly,” says Dr. Blazer. “A lot of patients have just a stock at them at home … and when they feel badly they’ll take some steroids.”
The problem with taking steroids for RA for extended periods of time is that they can cause side effects, including raising blood glucose levels, thinning the bones, and increasing risk of obesity and heart disease, according to Dr. Blazer.
Instead, patients should prioritize a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD), and supplement with steroids when necessary, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
3. You worry more about drug side effects than RA itself.
Medication side effects are a big issue for patients of any chronic condition, and RA is no exception. Remember: managing a chronic condition isn’t just about reducing symptoms, but also keeping disease activity low to maintain a healthy body for decades to come.
DMARDs, of course, can have side effects too, such as nausea, sore mouth, decreased appetite, or heartburn, according to UpToDate; some drugs can cause serious issues such as liver damage, high blood pressure, and low white blood cell counts. Your doctor will likely monitor your BP and kidney function while you’re on the medication to make sure you’re getting optimal treatment results.
However, these side effects are less serious than the consequences of not managing the inflammatory actions of RA. Make no mistake: Your doctor would not give you medication if she didn’t believe the benefits outweighed the risks.
Plus, different people react to different drugs in different ways. If you’re having trouble tolerating your medication side effects, don’t stop taking the drugs. Instead, talk to your doctor.
“We have very many options and new drugs are coming out every day,” says Dr. Blazer, “so we’re able to really tailor therapy to what it is that the patient needs in their lives.”