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Biologic Medications for Rheumatoid Arthritis: How They Work and What to Expect

Biologic Medications for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and pain in the joints. It affects around 1% of the global population and can lead to joint damage and disability if not managed properly. Traditional disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) have been used for many years to treat RA, but biologic medications are a newer type of medication that can be effective for treating RA. In this article, we will discuss what biologic medications are, how they work, and what to expect if you are considering using them to manage your RA symptoms.

What are Biologic Medications

Biologic medications are a type of DMARD that are designed to target specific components of the immune system that are involved in causing inflammation. They are made from living cells and are much more complex than traditional DMARDs, which are usually made from chemicals. Biologic medications are typically given as injections or infusions, but some can be taken orally. Biologics can be effective in reducing inflammation and slowing down the progression of RA. They are often used in combination with traditional DMARDs.

How Biologic Medications Work

Biologic medications work by targeting specific immune system components that are involved in causing inflammation in the joints. There are several different types of biologic medications, each of which targets a different component of the immune system. For example, some biologics target tumor necrosis factor (TNF), while others target interleukin-6 (IL-6) or B-cells. By targeting these specific components, biologics can help to reduce inflammation and slow down the progression of RA.

What to Expect

It's important to keep in mind that biologics can take some time to start working. It may take several weeks or months before you start to notice an improvement in your symptoms. However, once the medication does start working, you may experience a significant improvement in your quality of life.

In addition to the potential benefits, it's also important to be aware of the potential side effects of biologic drugs. While side effects are not common, they can occur. The most common side effects of biologics include injection site reactions, such as redness, swelling, or itching, as well as headache, nausea, and fatigue. Some biologics may also increase your risk of infections, including serious infections like tuberculosis.

If you experience any unusual symptoms while taking a biologic medication, it's important to contact your healthcare provider right away. They may recommend adjusting your dosage or switching to a different medication to help manage your symptoms.

Overall, biologic medications can be an effective option for people with rheumatoid arthritis who have not found relief from traditional medications. By understanding how they work, what types of biologics are available, and what to expect from treatment, you can make an informed decision about whether biologic medications are right for you.

Biologic Medication Considerations

If you are considering using biologic medications to manage your RA symptoms, there are several factors to consider. First, biologic medications can have potential side effects, including an increased risk of infections and other serious conditions. It is important to discuss the potential risks and benefits of biologic medications with your healthcare provider before starting treatment. Additionally, some lifestyle changes may be necessary while taking biologic medications. For example, you may need to avoid certain activities or take precautions to reduce your risk of infection. Regular check-ins with your healthcare provider will also be necessary to monitor your progress and manage any side effects that may arise.

Choosing the Right Biologic Medication

There are several different biologic medications available for the treatment of RA. When selecting a biologic medication, several factors should be considered, including the severity of your RA symptoms, your medical history, and any other health conditions you may have. Your healthcare provider can help you to determine which biologic medication is right for you based on these factors. Cost is also a consideration, as biologic medications can be expensive. Some insurance plans may cover the cost of biologic medications, while others may not. It is important to check with your insurance provider to determine your coverage options.

Starting and Stopping Biologic Medications

When starting a biologic medication, it is important to prepare for the first dose. This may involve scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider, reviewing the medication instructions, and arranging for any necessary follow-up appointments or lab work. After starting treatment, it is important to monitor your symptoms and track any changes or side effects. If you experience any serious side effects or do not see an improvement in your symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend stopping or switching medications.

Managing Side Effects of Biologic Medications

Common side effects of biologic medications include injection site reactions, infections, and allergic reactions. It is important to work closely with your healthcare provider to manage any side effects that may arise. Regular check-ins with your healthcare provider will also be necessary to monitor your progress and manage any side effects that may arise from the use of biologics. It is important to note that while these side effects are possible, they do not occur in all patients, and the benefits of biologics often outweigh the risks.

One of the most common side effects of biologics is an increased risk of infections. Biologics work by suppressing the immune system, which can make it harder for the body to fight off infections. Patients taking biologics are more susceptible to infections such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and skin infections. It is important for patients taking biologics to take steps to avoid getting sick, such as washing their hands frequently and avoiding people who are sick.

Another potential side effect of biologics is an increased risk of certain types of cancer. However, it is important to note that the risk of cancer is still relatively low and that biologics are still considered safe for use in most patients. Patients should discuss any concerns they have about the risk of cancer with their doctor.

Other potential side effects of biologics include allergic reactions, injection site reactions, and worsening of heart failure in patients with a history of heart failure. It is important for patients to report any side effects they experience while taking biologics to their doctor.

Despite the potential side effects, biologics have been shown to be effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. They can help reduce pain and inflammation, improve mobility, and prevent joint damage. If you have rheumatoid arthritis and are considering biologic treatment, talk to your doctor to determine if it is the right option for you.

What Are the Different Types of Biologic Medications

There are various types of biologic medications on the market right now. TNF inhibitors, such as Enbrel and Humira, are one type. They block TNF, a chemical involved in inflammation. Interleukin inhibitors, such as anakinra, tocilizumab, and sarilumab, target interleukins, which are inflammatory proteins produced by white cells. Other biologic drugs that target various cells and molecules involved in the immune response include B cell inhibitors, T cell inhibitors, and Janus kinase inhibitors.

Conclusion

Biologic medications have revolutionized the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. These medications work by targeting specific proteins in the immune system that contribute to inflammation and joint damage, helping to reduce pain and inflammation, improve mobility, and prevent joint damage. While there are potential side effects of biologics, they are still considered safe for use in most patients, and the benefits often outweigh the risks. If you have rheumatoid arthritis and are considering biologic treatment, talk to your doctor to determine if it is the right option for you.

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

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