She stresses, however, that nondrug treatments, such as exercise, physician encouragement and, for some patients, mental health therapies (although not included in the study) are also important aspects of treatment.

"Nowadays, the future of a newly diagnosed patient with RA looks brighter due to improved treatment possibilities, both pharmacological and non-pharmacological. Patients today are encouraged to keep physically active and the possibilities of a valued life despite RA are stressed," she points out.

Overman adds that although many studies have noted improved physical functioning among RA patients, few have focused on emotional well-being.

"Compared to the general population, patients with [RA] are more prone to experience psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety,” she explains. “Just focusing on the physical component to assess how patients are doing would be selling them short. Over the years, awareness of the importance of overall patient well-being and functioning has increased among health professionals, and the focus has widened from just trying to cure the disease to trying to find out how to improve the quality of people's lives."

She adds, "Psychological well-being is a complex concept which doesn't only depend on variables related to the disease, but also on many other variables, such as genetics and lifestyle possibilities and choices."

Overman also notes that although the study was conducted in the Netherlands, the findings likely apply to patients in the United States and other affluent countries if clinicians there follow new, evidence-based guidelines and "all patients have access to the same quality of care."

Janice McInnes, a physical therapist and clinical supervisor of rehabilitation services at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, says the "positive experience of both providers and patients" at her institution confirm the Dutch findings.

"Patients who have been diagnosed with a rheumatologic condition can lead active lives and engage in a wide variety of physical activities when their condition is well-controlled," she says. “As a physical therapist who treats patients with rheumatologic conditions, it is more routine now to see a patient with RA who needs muscle strength and conditioning. In the past, more therapy time was needed to restore basic range of motion and function. Now, physical therapy is just helping them get back in the game."   

Overman concurs, adding, "Patients with rheumatoid arthritis have a better opportunity of living a valued life than patients diagnosed with this disease two decades ago, and I would like to relay this hopeful message."