LONDON, ENGLAND (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Prompt referral to a rheumatologist and early initiation of treatment remain 2 of the 12 key recommendations in the updated European League Against Rheumatism guidelines for early arthritis.

There are now three specific recommendations dealing with referral and diagnosis; four that cover initial drug treatment with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and glucocorticoids; two that cover management strategy and monitoring; and three that cover nonpharmacologic interventions, prevention, and patient information and education.

While many of the recommendations have not radically changed, there have been revisions to the wording. In line with other EULAR recommendations for the management of rheumatic disease , the updated early arthritis guidelines also now contain three overarching principles. The first states that the management of early arthritis should aim to achieve the best possible care and emphasizes the need for shared decision making between rheumatologist and patient. The second states that a rheumatologist should be the main specialist looking after a patient with early arthritis, and the third states that a definitive diagnosis should be made only after a careful medical history and clinical examination have been undertaken.

“[The EULAR] recommendations deal especially with early-stage inflammatory arthritis,” said Dr. Bernard Combe of Hôpital Lapeyronie in Montpellier, France, who was the convener of the task force behind the updated guidelines. As such, they are universal for all rheumatologic arthritis conditions when diagnosed early, before they differentiate into more specifics, he said in an interview. That includes progression from early inflammatory arthritis to rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and spondyloarthritis.

Dr. Combe, who is also professor of rheumatology at Montpellier University and head of the bone and joint diseases department at Montpellier University Hospital, presented the updated EULAR guidance at the European Congress of Rheumatology. He noted that the guidelines were first written almost 10 years ago ( Ann Rheum Dis. 2007 Jan;66(1):34-45 ) and so were in need of an update. A task force of 20 rheumatologists, two patients, and one health care professional representing 12 European countries were involved in the update that adhered to EULAR standard operating procedure of developing guidelines.

Although EULAR had published guidance on the management of arthritis in the intervening years, he said, this had focused more on management, and the aim of the early arthritis guidelines was to cover the “entire spectrum of the management of early inflammatory arthritis.”

The updated recommendations start and end with patient-centered statements, he observed. The first notes that patients with any joint swelling associated with pain or stiffness should be referred to and seen by a rheumatologist within 6 weeks of the onset of symptoms. The final recommendation deals with patient information and education about the disease, and programs aiming to help patients cope with pain, disability, and ensure their continued ability to work and participate in their usual social activities.

The concept of early identification and treatment is not new, Dr. Combe observed, but there is so much more evidence in support of initiating DMARD therapy within the first 3 months of referral, even if patients do not fulfill classification criteria for a specific inflammatory rheumatic disease.

In terms of diagnosis, the recommendations now hinge on performing a thorough clinical examination and using ultrasonography to confirm the presence of arthritis if needed. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is no longer recommended in this initial diagnostic work up. This is due to the cost and often lack of widespread access in all European countries, Dr. Combe said. MRI might be considered later, however, if a diagnosis cannot be reached. Assessment of the number of swollen joints, acute phase reactants, and antibody tests (rheumatoid factor and anti-citrullinated protein antibody) also might be of use at this point.

Among the various DMARDs, methotrexate is recommended as the “anchor drug”; it should be used as part of the first treatment strategy in patients who are at risk of persistent disease, unless it contraindicated. The goal of treatment with DMARDs is to achieve clinical remission. Regular monitoring of disease activity, side effects, and comorbidities should be performed alongside their use. Regular monitoring of all pharmacologic therapy should include assessment of tender and swollen joint counts, global health assessments by the patient and the physician, and acute phase reactants.

As for NSAIDs, they are recommended for symptomatic relief, but “at the minimum effective dose for the shortest time possible.” The risks for gastrointestinal, renal, and cardiovascular complications should be carefully weighed against the likely benefits. Glucocorticoids also are recommended for reducing pain and swelling, and structural progression, but again these need to be used at the lowest possible dose and for no more than 6 months to avoid potential long-term side effects.

A recommendation on nonpharmacologic interventions also is included, which states that physical exercise and occupational therapy should be considered as adjunctive therapy.

In addition, the task force came up with a list of 10 research questions that need to be answered, which included items on risk prediction, optimal treatment combinations, and dosing regimens.

As with other EULAR guidelines, a flow chart is included that summarizes the recommendations to help guide physicians on when and how to treat, when to adapt dosing or change medication, and other treatments and approaches to consider.

There is a new recommendation on prevention highlighting the importance of smoking cessation, dental care, weight control, vaccination, and managing comorbidities.

Once the guidelines have been finalized, they will be published in the EULAR journal, Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, later in the year.

Dr. Combe has received research grants and honoraria from Pfizer, Roche-Chugai, and UCB, and honoraria from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Janssen, Eli Lilly, Merck Sharpe and Dohme, and Novartis.