SAN FRANCISCO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) The most common fear of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and axial spondyloarthritis (axSpA) patients is that their future suffering will be as bad as their past suffering, according to a French survey of 474 patients.

Overall, 182 of the 303 RA patients (60%) and 122 of the 171 axSpA patients (71%) in the study ranked that fear as at least a 7 on a 10-point scale, and it remained a serious and common concern even among the roughly half of patients who were in remission.

Majorities in both groups were highly concerned about deformity, wheel chair dependence, burdening loved ones, losing autonomy, and disease spread to other joints. Less common fears, but still ranked at least a 7 by about one-third to well over half of patients, were more frequent flares, inability to care for others, losing friends, loss of treatment effectiveness, fear of treatment side effects, and not finding help if independence is lost.

In general, axSpA was perceived as the more frightening disease, with patients more likely than those with RA to give fears presented on the survey a score of 7 or higher; axSpA patients also were more likely to fear the impact of disease on pregnancy and work, and more worried about passing disease onto their children. Fears about joints seizing up, bone and spine fusion, and increased flare activity were far more prevalent in the axSpA group.

The findings are from a test run of a new questionnaire being developed in France to capture the psychological burden of chronic inflammatory disease. The idea is to make patients’ fears and convictions explicit so that providers know what they are and can help patients cope.

“We’ve had this idea for a long time. Patients have fears and beliefs that” are difficult to express, and they get in the way of effective office communication. The questionnaire might break down the walls, so “patients know their doctors understand and are concerned” about their overall well-being, said senior investigator Dr. Francis Berenbaum, chief of rheumatology at Saint Antoine Hospital in Paris.

It’s hoped that the efforts will improve trust and dialogue between patients and doctors and lead to better treatment adherence and follow-up, more effective counseling, and perhaps even new patient-related outcomes for clinical trials, he said at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.

To create the survey, the team conducted semi-structured patient interviews at rheumatology practices across France. They whittled the responses down to identify 23 common fears and 19 disease-related beliefs in RA and axSpA. The resulting 44-item survey – there are two additional items about pregnancy and work-related concerns – asks patients to rate each one on a scale of 1-10. The team hopes to have data soon to show whether or not the efforts improve outcomes.

Common beliefs in both groups were that fatigue, over-exertion, stress, and weather changes trigger flares, but that moderate physical activity reduces them.

Almost half of RA patients, versus about a quarter of axSpA patients, believed that their disease was triggered by an emotional shock or stressful event, and small minorities in both groups attributed their disease to pollution, vaccines, or passive or active smoking. About 70% of patients in both groups were on biologics, and about one-third in each were very worried that their treatments would cause cancer.

Some “disease perceptions may not be accurate” and “provide a basis for discussion … to dispel misconceptions, align treatment expectations, and provide reassurance,” the investigators noted,

The RA patients were 60 years old on average, and about three-quarters were women. The median disease duration was 10 years, and mean Disease Activity Score (DAS28) was 2.7; axSpA patients were a mean age of 47 years, 43% were women, and the median disease duration was 12 years. Their mean Bath Ankylosing Spondylitis Disease Activity Index score was 3.2.

Foundation Arthritis Jacques Courtin and UCB Pharma funded the work. Dr. Berenbaum has no relevant disclosures. Two investigators are UCB employees.