The Key Signs Your Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment Is Working

… and why “feeling better” isn’t a good reason to skip your meds.

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Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, can’t be cured, but it can be managed through medication and lifestyle changes. Since symptom improvement may be gradual or ebb and flow, it might be hard to gauge whether you’re on the right regimen.

“The goal with rheumatoid arthritis therapy is to induce a complete remission,” says Ashira Blazer, MD, a rheumatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. “That means normalizing the inflammatory markers [and] reduce the number of tender and swollen joints.”

Patients may benefit from one of several types of prescription medications for RA. “Any given drug is likely to give about 30 to 40 percent of patients complete remission,” says Dr. Blazer.  With all the different options, most patients are able to achieve remission with at least one type of drug.

If your medication is working, you and your doctor should notice some improvements, such as:

  • Less pain or disability during everyday activities

  • A reduction in RA symptoms

  • Less swollen joints

  • A decrease in inflammatory markers in the blood

The Importance of RA Treatment Adherence

“Compliance is a huge problem in all autoimmune diseases, especially rheumatoid arthritis,” says Dr. Blazer. “That’s because the disease naturally ebbs and flows.” Here are habits that can make RA flares worse.

It’s tempting to become less dedicated to your treatment regimen when things are going well—when there’s no pain motivating you to take your medicine and get a good walk in. “Many feel that they may be cured [and] they stop taking their medications,” says Dr. Blazer. “This is a really big mistake.”

A 2015 study in the Journal of Rheumatology found that as many as 40 percent of patients did not adhere to taking their medication as prescribed. Although reasons for skipping treatment varied by person, some common responses were perceived side effects and doubting the necessity of the medication.

Treating RA requires consistency. Not only can lapsing on your treatment regimen cause RA flares, but there can also be increased inflammation in your body (even if you don’t feel it).

If you’re thinking extra inflammation just means more pain later on, think again: Inflammation in the body can increase your risk of other diseases. In fact, having RA doubles the risk of many heart issues—including heart attack and stroke—according to the Arthritis Foundation. That’s partly because inflammation damages the lining of the blood vessels, which causes plaque to build up.

“It’s much easier to control a disease than it is to have a flare and bring it back,” says Dr. Blazer. “It’s very important to continue on the medications even if you feel well.”

Those who adhere to RA treatment are less likely to experience more serious complications, disabilities, and illnesses in the future. By maintaining your treatment regimen now, you can enjoy a more comfortable and independent life for years to come.