Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, destructive disease characterized by joint pain and swelling, which progresses in a substantial percentage of patients to invasion of bone and cartilage. If not successfully treated, progressive joint destruction results in loss of function, disability, and increased mortality. The time from onset of symptoms to joint destruction is frequently measured in months rather than years. Unfortunately, the time from disease onset to diagnosis and initiation of effective therapy is often prolonged, allowing development of irreversible joint destruction. In order to apply current knowledge to reduce the disability and death associated with progressive RA, the clinician must understand the pathophysiologic stages of the disease as reflected in symptoms, radiography, and biochemical markers. Prognostic factors relevant to RA severity, including serum markers and genetic traits, must also be known so that appropriate therapeutic strategies can be planned. Although current therapy cannot reliably alter the long-term outcome of RA, new approaches are promising. Patients at high risk or who fail to respond to conservative therapy are candidates for earlier, more aggressive strategies using single or possibly combination antirheumatic therapy.
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