What arthritis treatments are available?
Medical arthritis treatments fall into two categories: those that treat the symptoms and those that address the cause of the joint damage. Most people with arthritis usually get a combination of both types of arthritis treatment.
Arthritis treatments that relieve symptoms include painkillers (such as paracetamol or codeine), non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen) or steroids. Steroids are given as a short course of tablets or injection directly into the joint. These arthritis treatments are the mainstay of drug therapy for osteoarthritis, but may also be used for rheumatoid arthritis treatment.
Targeting joint damage
Rheumatoid arthritis treatments that are designed to alter the course of the disease are known as ‘disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs’, or DMARDs. These drugs work by blocking inflammatory pathways, reducing both the symptoms and the joint damage caused by the inflammation. Traditional disease-modifying arthritis treatments include gold injections or tablets, penicillamine, leflunomide, hydroxychloroquine, sulfasalazine, and the most commonly used – methotrexate. In more severe or resistant cases, other DMARDs such as cyclophosphamide, azathioprine or cyclosporine may be used.
Biological arthritis treatments
Traditional DMARDs and steroid treatments are fraught with side-effects if used long term, and so newer DMARDs – also known as ‘biologic response modifiers’ or ‘biological DMARDs’ – that target the causes of the damage without having such a wide-spread impact on the rest of the body are being developed all the time. These include etanercept, infliximab and adalimumab, which block the action of tumour necrosis factor alpha. This is a chemical mediator that causes inflammation to flare up. Blocking its action soothes the inflammation very dramatically.
Newer arthritis treatments
More recently, two newer biological DMARDs have been developed: abatacept and rituximab. These arthritis treatments block the activity of specific immune cells. Abatacept blocks T cells and rituximab blocks B cells. They both work to damp down the immune response in rheumatoid arthritis. By acting on such specific targets, these new rheumatoid arthritis treatments can significantly reduce the symptoms and damage that occurs in rheumatoid arthritis without causing as many side-effects as traditional DMARDs. However, you might not be offered these two treatments as are not yet widely available in the UK.
Are there any other types of arthritis treatment?
At one end of the spectrum in very severe cases, surgery may be the most appropriate arthritis treatment. This is particularly true of osteoarthritis. When the joints become very damaged, the best option is to replace them – hip and knee joints are replaced in standard operations and many thousands of people benefit from them every year in the UK.
Complementary therapies such as acupuncture or yoga may help to manage the symptoms of arthritis. Staying mobile and eating a healthy diet can help to maintain a healthy weight and reduce pressure on the joints, as well as improving well-being and quality of life.
Are there any risks with arthritis treatment?
Painkillers or anti-inflammatories can cause stomach problems in some people. Arthritis treatments given as an injection or an intravenous infusion carry the risk of injection-site reactions. Long-term use of steroids is associated with side-effects including thinning of the bones and skin and changes in body weight. Arthritis treatments that suppress the immune system (such as DMARDs) can make you more open to infection.
Each arthritis treatment may cause different effects, good and bad, in different people, so it is important to discuss any new symptoms with your doctor and report anything unusual or worrying.
Dr Kathryn Senior is an acclaimed medical journalist who has written over 500 feature articles for leading international journals within The Lancet group. As Senior Writer at Freelance Copy she produces high quality scientific and medical content for websites and printed publications for companies and organisations in the health, medical and pharmaceutical sectors.
Get a quote for private treatment
If you would like a quote or more information on private arthritis treatment, complete our hospital treatment enquiry form. Your enquiry will be sent to a maximum of three private hospitals or private clinics in the UK, usually in your local area.
Complete the enquiry form...
Find a consultant
Are you looking for an arthritis treatment specialist or private consultant in the UK? We maintain a database of around 2,500 UK specialists in private practice. You can search by specialty or postcode.
Find a consultant...