When you first receive a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the news can be frustrating. But with proper medications, many of your RA symptoms can be alleviated. Both RA and the medications that treat it affect people differently. It’s your doctor’s responsibility to develop a medication treatment plan that meet your body’s specific needs.

But what if the trusted medications you’ve been taking don’t appear to be working as well as they used to? What if a new medication becomes available that might help manage your RA even better? Find out what plan of action is best for you based on your own RA treatment needs.

When should you switch your medications?

A variety of medications are used to treat RA, but most people with RA like to stay as consistent as possible with their treatment. This means once you find a combination of medications that work, you should stick to that plan.

However, if you’re experiencing any of the following, it may warrant talking to your rheumatologist about switching medications.

1. Your current medication doesn’t work as well as it used to

Sometimes your body can become immune to certain RA medications. Sometimes new symptoms arise that your current medications can’t tackle. You know your body best. Your rheumatologist turns to you to gauge how you’re reacting to your RA treatments.

If you’re experiencing new joint pain, increased swelling and inflammation, or excessive fatigue, let your doctor now. With all the medication options available today, your doctor can often come up with a new plan to control your symptoms and help you feel better. There’s even a convenient online calculator that can help you and your doctor monitor your RA inflammation symptoms as they change.

2. Blood tests reveal that you have increased inflammation

Sometimes RA becomes more active without warning. Other times, symptoms can be triggered by normal life changes such as aging, stress, pregnancy, or early motherhood. In fact, your gender can even affect the condition. In the United States, 5 percent of women over the age of 55 have RA, a rate that’s about three times higher than for men. Women with RA may experience more pain than men due to factors such as musculoskeletal size and strength as well as hormonal influences.

To diagnose and monitor RA, your doctor will periodically request blood tests. They can reveal what a physical exam can’t find. These targeted tests look for RA markers in the blood by examining your body’s internal inflammation levels and interactions between combinations in your blood stream. Blood tests for RA and its progression will look for:

  • rheumatoid factor (RF)
  • anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (anti-CCP)
  • C-reactive proteins (CRPs)
  • erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)
  • antinuclear antibodies (ANAs)
  • complete blood count (CBC)

If your blood contains elevated levels of common blood components or a new RA marker, your doctor might recommend medication changes to help slow down the progression of RA.

3. Your doctor recommends a change

If your doctor isn’t happy with the way in which your RA is progressing and recommends a new medication, take their advice. The goal is to manage your symptoms, get you back to optimum health, and improve your quality of life. Your doctor is equipped with the most up-to-date research available on RA, which changes all the time. It’s their job to keep you informed and work with you to create the best medication regimen for your body.

Weigh the potential side effects of switching medications

If you decide it’s time to switch medications, be aware of the potential side effects of other RA drug therapies. Whether you are switching your RA medications to steroids, nonsteroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), or biologics (the newest DMARDs), these medications each carry their own possible side effects, which can include:

  • heartburn and belching (NSAIDs)
  • bleeding in the stomach lining (NSAIDs)
  • high blood pressure and blood sugars (steroids)
  • weight gain (steroids)
  • increased cholesterol (DMARDs)
  • decreased bone health (steroids)
  • fogginess (DMARDs such as methotrexate)
  • liver and bone marrow damage, infection (DMARDs such as methotrexate)
  • infection (biologics)
  • mood instability

You might also want to switch your medications because of issues with side effects. If your current RA medication is causing damaging effects to your body, or your mood, ask your doctor to help you find a medication that works more effectively for you.

What to know before switching RA medications

Before you make any major change to your medication, it’s important to have all the facts. Keep these points in mind and do your research before switching things up.

Make sure you know the cost of the new medication. The average cost of treating RA can be as much as $20,000 per year, so make certain you ask about insurance coverage and payment options as well.

Always ask about potential side effects and the long-term effects of the medication you choose.

Make certain the research you look at concerning the new drug is up to date.

Ensure that the medication you’re about to take interacts well with any other medications you’re already taking. It’s important to discuss this with your doctor and pharmacist.

The takeaway

The idea of making a medication switch can seem overwhelming. You aren’t obligated to make any changes to your drug therapy, especially if you think it’s working for you. The key is finding balance between your medications and your well-being. Your medication should help you get back to enjoying life.