You may be taking one or multiple medications to manage your RA.  Your doctor is likely monitoring and adjusting your therapy to keep your disease activity as low as possible. Although common side effects of RA drugs are well known, researchers have identified potential benefits for your overall health.

“It’s been fascinating to see that lots of medications that we’re using to treat RA have added benefits that we may not have been aware of,” says Susan Manzi, MD, MPH, director of the Lupus Center for Excellence and Chair of Medicine at West Penn Allegheny Health System in Pittsburgh.
Below are medications that may be helping you in ways you haven’t realized.

Methotrexate (Rheumatrex, Trexall)
What it does for RA:

Methotrexate is considered the gold standard of treatment for RA and often the first drug that a newly diagnosed patient takes.  
Methotrexate, taken orally, reduces pain and slows RA progression by blocking certain enzymes in the immune system.
Known risks:
 The drug increases the risk for infection and liver damage.
Potential Benefits:
 According to a number of studies, methotrexate may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

According to a 2010 review study of 18 studies at Southampton General Hospital in Southampton, England, methotrexate is associated with less risk for cardiovascular disease, says Manzi.  That’s a key benefit for those with RA, who have a heightened risk for heart disease.

The heart protection may be for two reasons, says lead study author Christopher J. Edwards, FRCP, MD, Consultant Rheumatologist at Southampton General Hospital: “Atherosclerosis [build-up of fatty plaque in the arteries and the leading cause of heart attacks] is an inflammatory disease.  So maybe, if you use methotrexate, it turns off inflammation and so reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

He notes that any anti-inflammatory drug may have that effect. But the data linking methotrexate and the reduction of cardiac events is stronger than data on other drugs.

Researchers don’t yet know what dose of methotrexate reduces heart disease risk or how long it takes for protection to kick in. “But standard doses of 10 to 20 mg per week do seem to reduce risk,” says Edwards.

For most patients who can tolerate methotrexate, the benefits may outweigh potentially negative side effects, says Edwards: “For most patients, methotrexate is well tolerated and safe.  For them, a cardiovascular improvement is important.”

Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS)
What they do for RA
: NSAIDs treat RA pain and inflammation.
Known Risks:  They can cause stomach bleeding, kidney and heart problems.
Potential Benefits:
 A 2011 study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle involving 1173 women with colorectal cancer found that the use of NSAIDs before diagnosis cut their risk of dying from the cancer in half.  The protection primarily occurred when tumors were at the top of the colon, farthest away from the rectum.