Pharmacological and non-pharmacological therapeutic strategies in difficult-to-treat rheumatoid arthritis: a systematic literature review informing the EULAR recommendations for the management of difficult-to-treat rheumatoid arthritis

Objectives: To summarise, by a systematic literature review (SLR), the evidence regarding pharmacological and non-pharmacological therapeutic strategies in difficult-to-treat rheumatoid arthritis (D2T RA), informing the EULAR recommendations for the management of D2T RA.

Methods: PubMed, Embase and Cochrane databases were searched up to December 2019. Relevant papers were selected and appraised.

Results: Two hundred seven (207) papers studied therapeutic strategies. Limited evidence was found on effective and safe disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) in patients with comorbidities and other contraindications that limit DMARD options (patients with obesity, hepatitis B and C, risk of venous thromboembolisms, pregnancy and lactation). In patients who previously failed biological (b-)DMARDs, all currently used b/targeted synthetic (ts-)DMARDs were found to be more effective than placebo. In patients who previously failed a tumour necrosis factor inhibitor (TNFi), there was a tendency of non-TNFi bDMARDs to be more effective than TNFis. Generally, effectiveness decreased in patients who previously failed a higher number of bDMARDs. Additionally, exercise, psychological, educational and self-management interventions were found to improve non-inflammatory complaints (mainly functional disability, pain, fatigue), education to improve goal setting, and self-management programmes, educational and psychological interventions to improve self-management.The identified evidence had several limitations: (1) no studies were found in patients with D2T RA specifically, (2) heterogeneous outcome criteria were used and (3) most studies had a moderate or high risk of bias.

Conclusions: This SLR underscores the scarcity of high-quality evidence on the pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatment of patients with D2T RA. Effectiveness of b/tsDMARDs decreased in RA patients who had failed a higher number of bDMARDs and a subsequent b/tsDMARD of a previously not targeted mechanism of action was somewhat more effective. Additionally, a beneficial effect of non-pharmacological interventions was found for improvement of non-inflammatory complaints, goal setting and self-management.

Keywords: arthritis; biological therapy; occupational therapy; patient reported outcome measures; rheumatoid; therapeutics.