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Steroids for rheumatoid arthritis

Steroids (sometimes called corticosteroids) have a very powerful effect in reducing inflammation and although they don't cure the condition they will suppress it. They can be given a injections into a joint, a vein or a muscle, or as tablets, and are not the same as the steroids sometimes used by athletes.

Steroids are often given as a short-term treatment:

  • to ease symptoms while slower-acting DMARDs start to take effect
  • to deal with flare-ups of symptoms which can sometimes occur even when your disease is generally well controlled.

Steroid injections have few side-effects but they may include:

  • thinning and other changes in the skin at the site of the injection (atrophy)
  • facial flushing
  • interference with the menstrual cycle
  • changes in mood.

The side-effects of steroid tablets can also include:

  • weight gain
  • thinning of the bones (osteoporosis)
  • muscle weakness
  • cataracts
  • a rise in blood sugar or blood pressure
  • increased vulnerability to infections.

Doses of steroid tablets are kept as low as possible to keep the risk of side-effects to a minimum. Your doctor may also advise that you take calcium and vitamin D supplements or drugs calledbisphosphonates alongside the steroids to help protect your bones against osteoporosis.

You shouldn't stop taking your steroid tablets or alter the dose unless your doctor recommends it. It can be dangerous to stop steroids suddenly.

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