What is Remission of Rheumatoid Arthritis? Part 2

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Clinical Rheumatoid Arthritis Remission

alligator clawRheumatology doctors look for something that they call “clinical remission.” And there are several different descriptions of clinical remission. As I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post, Science Direct has listed 6 different descriptions of clinical remission of Rheumatoid Arthritis.

The American College of Rheumatology adopted a list in 1981 of six criteria. If 5 out of 6 of them were satisfied for 2 months time, that was classified as a clinical remission. In 2007, the ACR adjusted the list and the standard. It is now 4 out of 5 criteria, making it easier to classify people as being in a state of remission. “No fatigue” was removed from the list.

Here is a look at the current ACR remission criteria:

Complete clinical remission is defined as presence of at least 4 of the following 5 criteria for at least 2 consecutive months:

  •        morning stiffness equal to 15 minutes or less
  •        no joint pain by history (meaning according to patient)
  •        no joint tenderness
  •        no joint or tendon-sheath swelling
  •        ESR lower than 30 in women (20 in men)

Note: Please see my recent posts on tests for RA regarding ESR and CRP levels.)

What difference does it make?

Rheumatoid Arthritis damage can continue to in the patient.

Researchers are beginning to realize that even patients who appear to be in a period of clinical remission are possibly continuing to experience damage due to RA.  According to one RA study in the Netherlands, “Whether radiographic progression (that is x-ray changes revealing damage) is entirely dependent on the presence of joint inflammation is a matter of debate; some evidence suggests that radiologic progression may continue in patients who appear clinically to be in remission…”

This would mean that the patient should definitely not suspend treatment aimed at forestalling damage. And it would beg the question of whether the use of the term “remission” is actually appropriate to begin with.

The authors point out the obvious need for better methods of detecting joint damage. “Better diagnosis of joint damage will assist in our quest to attain and document full remission in RA.”

Patient treatment

The criteria doctors use to judge the state of Rheumatoid Arthritis in a patient directly affect treatment decisions. Patients who are considered to be in remission are usually assigned a less aggressive treatment protocol. As stated above, unseen damage to joints and other body systems can continue while inflammation appears to have abated.

Here is one example: “Rheumatoid arthritis is a major risk factor for heart attack as a study of 114,000 women indicated. The risk of a heart attack in women with rheumatoid arthritis was double that of other women” (Medterms RA article).

My question:  Does so-called “clinical remission” have any influence on this statistic? Mortality rates for Rheumatoid Arthritis say, “No.” See my post on RA and mortality.

Drug trials

This one is thorny. The criteria that a pharmaceutical company uses for its drug trials make the drug to appear more or less effective. If one drug trial uses a stringent definition of clinical remission, its product may appear to be less effective than another company which uses a more relaxed standard.

An amusing account of ankles.

I read a couple of articles about an interesting debate that took place over the last couple of years.  Rheumatologists were arguing that joint counts (swollen, tender, or disabled) ought not include feet and ankle joints. One elaborate study “proved” that it does not matter whether ankles and feet are counted. In other words, there is no difference in the DAS (disease activity score) as it relates to criteria for remission according to NIH Rheumatoid Arthritis statistics.

Read their conclusion for yourself:  “…inclusion of ankles and feet only rarely influences the definition of overall disease activity status, especially the presence or absence of remission.”

Here is the funny part. This is a direct quote. I promise you. It is a footnote to the study above:

“Finally, an important clinical consideration should be discussed. The mere fact that ankles and feet have been excluded in the context of certain composite scores does not justify their omission in the evaluation and management of individual patients with RA. In contrast, since their involvement is common and they bear highly important functional roles…”

They are reminding doctors who read their report to go ahead and treat the ankles and feet because they are functionally very useful parts of the body of the person affected. I find it hysterically funny that they consider it necessary to say such a thing.

Or maybe just sad.

Next time: Remission and Rheumatoid Arthritis, part 3. We’ll ask, “Are we still sick if we are in remission?”

Recommended reading:

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Kelly Young. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 at 10:03 am and is filed under Reality Check. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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