HealthONE - February 13, 2019

If you're living with rheumatoid arthritis, you already know the importance of getting treatment to manage pain and prevent future joint damage. Sometimes, traditional rheumatoid arthritis medications aren't enough. A relatively new class of drug, biologics have been approved for the treatment of moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis. While biologics offer benefits to people suffering from joint pain and inflammation, they don't come without risks. Learn more about adding biologics to your rheumatoid arthritis treatment plan.

What Is a Biologic?

Biologics are a form of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) that stop the progression of rheumatoid arthritis. Unlike traditional DMARDs like methotrexate that are made from synthetic ingredients, biologics are genetically engineered inside living cells to mimic the role of certain proteins in the body. While traditional DMARDs are usually the first choice for treating rheumatoid arthritis, biologics can treat moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis when other medications don't provide adequate symptom relief.

The most commonly prescribed biologic treatments approved for rheumatoid arthritis are:

  • adalimumab (brand name: Humira)
  • certolizumab (brand name: Cimzia)
  • etanercept (brand name: Enbrel)
  • infliximab (brand name: Remicade)
  • abatacept (brand name: Orencia)
  • rituximab (brand name: Rituxan)
  • anakinra (brand name: Kineret)

How do biologics treat rheumatoid arthritis? In people with rheumatoid arthritis, the body's immune cells mistakenly attack joint tissue, triggering inflammation that causes joint damage and pain. Biologics target the cells responsible to reduce inflammation and protect joints from further damage. Biologics are often used with other medications to help treat and manage symptoms, such as traditional DMARDs and NSAID pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen. Biologics can be taken via subcutaneous injection or IV infusion.

Are Biologics Safe?

Because biologics suppress part of the body's immune system, they can increase your risk of infection. Biologics can also cause certain conditions like tuberculosis and hepatitis B to worsen or reactivate, so routine bloodwork is often required before starting and while taking biologics. Additionally, some people may experience injection site reactions and non-life-threatening symptoms like fever, chills and body aches.

Do Biologics Help Manage Pain Effectively?

Because biologics target the part of your immune system that causes inflammation, they are often effective at relieving symptoms that cause pain. People with severe inflammation who haven't seen relief from traditional options are most likely to experience relief when starting biologics. It's important to note that biologics affect each person differently, and it can take up to 12 weeks to observe a response. Additionally, biologics have been shown to prevent joint damage in people with rheumatoid arthritis better than traditional DMARDs.

Are Biologics the Right Drug for Me?

People with rheumatoid arthritis may see a substantial improvement in symptoms when adding biologics to conventional medications. But, along with side effects, biologics come with a higher price tag than traditional rheumatoid arthritis medications. If your doctor prescribes a biologic as part of your treatment plan, ask about co-pay assistance that can make treatment more affordable.

Find a rheumatologist in your area to discuss your symptoms and decide on the most effective treatment plan for your rheumatoid arthritis.