Find out all about clinical trials.
For you or a loved one with psoriatic arthritis, this section goes into the medical treatment methods and alternative therapies available. Perhaps most importantly, though, it emphasizes the importance of a support network and empowers people with practical things they can do to make it easier to live with the condition.
Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is a long-term disease that affects both the joints and the skin. People with psoriasis may develop psoriatic arthritis. Most will have had psoriasis for about 10 years before PsA develops
PsA in joints: psoriatic arthritis causes pain and swelling in the membranes that hold together and protect the bones in your joints. This can bend and stretch the tendons and ligaments , and eventually harm the bone and cartilage in your joints as well. PsA can also affect other body organs and tissues.
PsA in skin: psoriatic arthritis causes skin lesions or plaques –patches of dead skin – that can appear to be rough, dry and thick as dead skin builds up, red and irritated with silvery scales and a distinct border between the plaque and normal skin. Sometimes the lesions itch, burn or bleed. Patches are most often seen on the elbows, knees and torso, but can appear anywhere, including the scalp. Fingernails and toenails can also be affected – nails become thickened, lift up from the skin or become pitted (small holes form in them).
Psoriatic arthritis is a chronic disease, meaning once it starts, it likely persists life-long. Symptoms usually come and go in waves, and though scientists don't yet know what triggers PsA or how to cure it, they do know about the types of psoriatic arthritis symptoms, how to treat symptoms and how the disease progresses.
Psoriatic arthritis is caused by a malfunction of the immune system, in which your immune system mistakenly attack healthy cells in your own body, in this case your joints and skin. Scientists are not sure why this happens, but the nature of PsA puts it in the category of autoimmune diseases.
Scientists are studying the potential causes:
Joints or areas of skin affected by psoriatic arthritis may become red, swollen and painful, and feel hot or warm to the touch: this is called inflammation. The joints of people with PsA also get stiff, especially in the first hours after waking up.
The symptoms of psoriatic arthritis tend to change over time, and appear differently in each person. People with PsA often suffer from a cycle of very painful periods of time – flares – followed by periods when the symptoms disappear, called remissions.
Pain can be mild or extreme, the period when symptoms appear can be short or very long, and the length of time between flares can range from weeks to years.
If inflammation from psoriatic arthritis is left untreated, it can eventually lead to joint deformities and severe stiffness that make daily activities difficult. PsA is a form of arthritis in which joint damage can appear particularly quickly.
Fortunately, there are many ways to treat psoriatic arthritis and prevent damage before it happens.
Psoriatic arthritis usually begins slowly, in one or a few joints, and spreads to other joints over weeks or months. Skin and joint symptoms often appear at the same time.
PsA psoriasis can appear anywhere on the body, but is most often seen on:
Psoriatic arthritis truly can look very different from person to person. It is impossible to predict how it will affect you — some people have skin problems worse than the arthritis; in others, it may be the opposite.
It is common in psoriatic arthritis to see nails become rough, ridged, and thick, and for fingers to become swollen and "sausage-looking" — called dactylitis. Nail changes like pitting, splitting, cracking and separating from the skin are also common. Over time, joints in the hands may change shape, lock, or fuse together. The toes can be similarly affected.
In addition to the joints, PsA can cause swelling in tissues around them, like muscles, skin, or tendons and ligaments. This is called enthesitis. It occurs in about one in five people with psoriatic arthritis, most often in the elbows, heels, the bottom of feet and the outer hip area.
In some people with PsA, swelling of eye muscles and tissues, called uveitis, also occurs. Conjunctivitis, or red eye, is also common.
Living with any chronic disease can make you feel isolated – especially when you have to adapt or change your daily routine, see many healthcare practitioners and learn medical terms. But you don't need to do it alone.
When you have psoriatic arthritis, it's invaluable to keep the lines of communication open with your family, friends and coworkers: they can't understand what it's like to live with PsA if you don't talk openly about it.
Here are some tips and helpful insights we've learned from PsA patients:
If you have psoriatic arthritis, there are many things you can do to ease your symptoms. Moderate exercise, soothing skin care routines, healthy eating and relaxation techniques are all important factors in caring for your skin and joints.
Please be sure to consult with your physician.
Exercise doesn't make stiff and painful joints feel worse. In fact, a bit of moderate exercise may be just the trick to relieving joint tension. And physical activity strengthens muscles and tissues, so weakened or damaged joints are better supported.
To keep exercising fun:
Always make sure that you don't overdo it. For extra motivation, you can ask a professional to design a fitness regimen. Be sure to tell them about your condition, so the routine will be right for you.
Proper skincare will help you manage some psoriasis symptoms.
To soothe your skin:
Protect your joints from damage by making a few changes to daily activities:
Protect your knuckles – use gadgets to twist open lids, enlarge the grip on tools and kitchen utensils and push doors open using your body instead of just your fingers
For some people, complementary and alternative therapies – treatments that fall outside the scope of traditional western medicine – can sometimes work very well for relief of arthritis and psoriasis symptoms. Ask your healthcare professional about alternative therapies.
Both heat and cold can help reduce pain associated with psoriatic arthritis but there are instances when it's better to avoid them.
Heat: Stiff joints can benefit from a bit of heat, including first thing in the morning. Take a warm shower or hot bath, or apply warm compresses to help relax the muscles and relieve joint stiffness and pain. However, heat should never be applied directly to joints that are swollen or already warm. This will make symptoms worse.
Cold: Applying a cold compress (or a plastic bag of ice cubes wrapped in a towel) to hot and inflamed joints for about 15 minutes can help constrict blood flow and decrease the pain and swelling. Cold can make a joint feel stiffer, however, so don't use it on already stiff joints.
You and your doctor may consider surgery if medical therapies are not working well enough for you. In severe or advanced cases of psoriatic arthritis, it can return function to a badly damaged joint or restore posture in the spine and neck. Back surgery is reserved for only the most severe cases, where deformities prevent almost all normal movement.
The decision usually depends on the amount of pain and disability in the affected joint. Surgery can sometimes improve the appearance of deformed joints. Or, doctors may perform surgery to get a closer look at the damaged joint to better understand how to treat it.
Please be sure to consult with your physician.
The general approach to treating psoriatic arthritis is to reduce joint inflammation and prevent long-term damage to the joints, as well as to manage outbreaks of psoriasis. Psoriatic arthritis medications are divided into two general categories: those that relieve symptoms and inflammation, and those that can relieve symptoms and modify progression of the disease. Psoriasis medications relieve symptoms and inflammation, and interrupt the cycle of increased production of skin cells. Some medications can have a positive effect on both arthritis and psoriasis.
Your doctor can explain the differences, benefits and side effects of each medication. You will likely try different therapies or combinations before finding the best prolonged pain relief.
Please be sure to consult with your physician.
Four types of medication are used to treat the symptoms of arthritis in PsA:
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a class of medications that can be used to treat the pain and inflammation of PsA. NSAIDs do not control the disease, they only treat symptoms. Therefore, they are only taken on an as-needed basis.
Your doctor may recommend an NSAID to reduce swelling and relieve joint pain, tenderness, and stiffness. You may start to see benefits within a few weeks.
There are many NSAIDs available, including prescription and nonprescription types. All NSAIDs have an anti-inflammatory effect. Each person reacts differently to different drugs, so you may find that one NSAID brings you more relief than another.
The most common side effects associated with NSAID use are indigestion, heartburn, and stomach and abdominal pain. They can also alter the protective lining of the stomach and gut, making you susceptible to ulcers and bleeding, so you should avoid taking more than two different kinds of NSAIDs together. COX-2 inhibitors are custom-designed types of NSAIDs that minimize the risk of ulcers and bleeding. People with heart disease, or a history of stroke or chest pain, should not take NSAIDs. Discuss the use of NSAIDs with your doctor if you have kidney, stomach or heart problems.
The body naturally produces cortisone and other steroids to regulate inflammation in the body. Physicians use corticosteroids as fast-working medication for particularly severe and painful symptoms of psoriatic arthritis. They provide the same type of relief as NSAIDs, but are stronger, and not meant for chronic or long-term use. They can have severe side effects, so they are usually taken for limited periods of time, or used to provide relief while waiting for slower acting medications to take effect.
Corticosteroids can be injected directly into a joint or taken orally. Some of the side effects of oral corticosteroids include facial rounding, fluid retention, fatty deposits in arms, legs or back, increased appetite and weight gain, difficulty sleeping, acne, hair growth, blurry vision, increase in blood pressure, increase in blood sugar levels and mood swings. As dosage is decreased or stopped, these side effects disappear.
Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are prescription medications that relieve psoriatic arthritis symptoms and limit joint damage. While they cannot reverse damage that has already happened, early treatment with DMARDs can prevent damage that may occur with psoriatic arthritis over time, and slow or even stop the progression of the disease. With DMARDs, it can take time – sometimes weeks or months before there is a noticeable difference in pain and joint swelling. During this time, you might also be prescribed a steroid or NSAID, to help control symptoms.
In addition to their effects on arthritis, DMARDs can be prescribed to relieve the psoriasis symptoms of skin inflammation and decrease the production of skin cells .
DMARDs are meant for long-term management of psoriatic arthritis and may be taken consistently for months or years in order to keep PsA in remission . They can be taken alone, but are sometimes prescribed with NSAIDs, other DMARDs or biologic medications. Your doctor will recommend a therapy that is best suited to your type and stage of arthritis, other medical problems and medications.
Common side effects of DMARDs include nausea, diarrhea, upset stomach, dizziness, increased risk of infection and liver problems. Regular blood work is needed to monitor blood cell counts and liver function.
Biologic response modifiers, or biologics for short, are medications specifically designed to target your body's immune system. Like DMARDs, biologics are used to slow the progression of psoriatic arthritis, help prevent joint damage and ease joint swelling, tenderness and pain. And like DMARDs, they are also used to slow the production of skin cells , and ease the pain and swelling of psoriasis plaques and scales.
Biologics can take time to work. Some people notice the effects of the medication quickly (within a week), while others take months to feel the effects. Biologics are often combined with other medications to treat PsA, such as DMARDs. They are also prescribed to people who fail to respond to other PsA therapies.
Common side effects with biologics include mild skin reactions at the injection site, nausea, abdominal pain and headaches. Rarely, people who take biologics may develop serious infections, lupus-like reactions, nervous system diseases, and cancer. You should not take a biologic if you are pregnant or nursing, or have a history of multiple sclerosis or cancer. Tell your doctor if you have a history of tuberculosis , hepatitis B or recurrent infections.
Biologics are administered in two ways: infusion or injection. Your doctor can provide you with information and help make the right choice for you.
If your psoriasis is severe and doesn't respond to other treatments, your doctor may recommend using a drug from the retinoid family. It's not known exactly how retinoids work, but they reduce skin cell production and the speed at which they grow and shed.
With retinoids, symptoms usually return once the therapy is stopped. Common side effects are dry skin and mucous membranes, itching, and hair loss. Women must avoid pregnancy for at least three years after taking retinoids since they can cause severe birth defects.
Brief exposure to small amounts of sunlight, or to controlled doses of UVB light from an artificial source, may improve mild-to-moderate psoriasis symptoms. During UVB treatment, psoriasis may worsen temporarily before improving, and light therapy can cause short-term side effects such as redness, itching and dry skin. Moisturizers help lessen these side effects.
Combining UVB with other therapies may increase efficacy dramatically and allow for lower doses of medication.
Reserved for moderate-to-severe cases, PUVA (psoralen plus long-wave ultraviolet A light) can be used to clear psoriasis. PUVA uses a light-sensitive compound in addition to light therapy, and usually works in most people with chronic psoriasis lesions.
The short-term side effects with PUVA include nausea, headache, burning and itching. The long-term side effects can include dry and wrinkled skin, freckles, and increased risk of skin cancer (including melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer).