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Methotrexate and its benefit for Sjögren’s patients

Posted on Wed, Dec 27, 2017

Question_and_Answer.jpgAsk the doctor: What is Methotrexate and what is its benefit for a Sjögren’s patient?

Methotrexate is an extremely important therapy for Sjögren’s and many other rheumatic and inflammatory diseases. Its predecessor, aminopterin was introduced in 1948 as a cancer treatment. By the early 1950’s small studies of aminopterin in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis demonstrated efficacy but the drug was slow to capture the interest of rheumatologists, perhaps because of the landmark discovery of cortisone, also in 1948, one of the first “miracle drugs.”

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In 1962 methotrexate, a modified version of aminopterin, was introduced. Both inhibited the enzyme folic acid reductase, but methotrexate was easier to produce, making it easier to meet the growing demand for its use in cancer treatment. Small, successful clinical trials of methotrexate for RA, psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis followed its introduction and the case for its use in these disorders slowly built. By the 1970’s methotrexate had become a mainstay in treatment of severe psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis treatment, and then in the 1980’s it was adopted as standard management for RA after large-scale clinical trials demonstrated compelling efficacy and reasonably good safety.

Comprehensive guidelines for treatment of Sjögren’s were recently published in Arthritis Care and Research. Methotrexate is prominently featured in these guidelines for the management of inflammatory musculoskeletal pain in Sjögren’s patients. It should be noted that the arthritis in Sjögren’s may be indistinguishable from that of RA and in some patients the overlap of these two dis- orders is considerable. Patients whose arthritis is poorly controlled with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), low doses of steroids and Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine) are often managed with methotrexate.

Methotrexate is usually taken just once a week in tab- let form. Some patients take it as a weekly injection. The dose is usually steadily increased during the first two or three months of treatment until a maintenance dose is reached. Patients notice a gradual and meaningful reduction of joint swelling, pain and stiffness as the drug takes hold. Improvement may be noticed as early as 6 weeks; the full effect tends to be appreciated at three months. Systemic complaints such as fatigue, weakness and anemia may all improve on treatment.

Side effects of methotrexate are varied. It is a drug that must be monitored closely by a patient’s physician. Common complaints consist of mouth sores, stomach upset, loss of appetite, fatigue or headache. Some patients notice mild hair loss, more of a thinning, usually more noticeable to the patient than to friends or family. Some patients develop a cough or low grade fever. Rarely, a pneumonia-like syndrome can complicate treatment.

Methotrexate can be irritating to the liver. Patients taking methotrexate should avoid drinking alcohol and need to have liver function tests performed by their physician on a regular basis. The bone marrow can be suppressed by methotrexate and blood counts need to be checked regularly as well. Use of the B vitamin folic acid is recommended for all patients taking methotrexate to reduce the risk of side effects.

Patients on methotrexate need to stay in close communication with their physician and should promptly inform their doctor about a cough, fever, mouth sores or loss of appetite.

Despite all of the concerns about side effects from methotrexate, this drug has been quite well tolerated by most patients. Most importantly, methotrexate is a very effective and life-altering therapy for many patients.

by Herbert S. B. Baraf, MD, FACP, MACR Clinical Professor of Medicine, George Washington University

This information was first printed in The Moisture Seekers, SSF's patient  
newsletter for members. 

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Comment below and let us know what questions you would like answered in upcoming issues of The Moisture Seekers.

Topics: Symptoms, Treatment, Methotrexate

Sjögren’s Top 5: What Your Rheumatologist Should be Monitoring For

Posted on Tue, Oct 31, 2017


Daniel Wallace.pngPatients with Sjögren’s usually see their autoimmune treating physician several times a year. Mostly, they are rheumatologists, but can also be primary physicians, internists or subspecialists such as interested pulmonary or hematology doctors. In addition to taking a history, performing a physical examination, or drawing blood tests, are there things that should be specifically looked at or monitored for? This article reviews the top five items.

1. Is there evidence for extraglandular Sjögren’s?

Some people with extraglandular Sjögren’s may have interstitial lung disease, renal tubular acidosis, swollen lymph glands, or inflammatory scarring of the bile ducts (biliary cirrhosis). Being identified with extraglandular Sjögren’s usually warrants systemic immune suppressive therapy with agents such as azathioprine, methotrexate, cyclophosphamide or rituximab. The treating physician should use their tools to screen for the spread of Sjögren’s to new areas with imaging or laboratory testing, which allows one to be proactive and treat the disease early.

2. Screening for lymphoma

Over a 15-20 year period of observation, 8-15% of Sjögren’s patients develop a lymphoma. Screening for symptoms of early lymphoma include asking a patient about swollen glands, fevers, weight loss and new onset of fatigue. A physical examination can detect lymph nodes, evidence for a “wasted” appearance, or an enlarged spleen. I perform a serum protein electrophoresis (a $30 blood test) on my Sjögren’s patients every 6 months. Often, early lymphomas can be detected with the development of an extra protein on this determination, which is known as a “MGUS” or monoclonal gammopathy of uncertain significance. Most Sjögren’s associated lymphomas are of a specific variety known as “MALT” that, if identified early, responds well to treatment.

3. Looking for overlapping Sjögren’s

Sjögren’s patients can have features of other autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory myositis, biliary cirrhosis, scleroderma, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or lupus, while still being “mostly” Sjögren’s. These features may warrant certain anti-inflammatory interventions. This would include corticosteroids for inflamed muscles, drugs that promote more oxygen to dilate the vessels of the hands for individuals with Raynaud’s (often seen with scleroderma or lupus), approaches that halt the development of erosions (bone destruction) with rheumatoid arthritis (e.g., anti-TNFs), ursodiol for biliary cirrhosis, antimalarials for subacute cutaneous lupus rashes in anti-SSA positive patients or thyroid. Identification of a secondary autoimmune overlap can often explain symptoms that may be profound but are not a part of Sjögren’s.

4. Don’t unnecessarily treat Sjögren’s for symptoms that are not related

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Sjögren’s patients may have high blood pressure, depression and diabetes, as does 25% of the United States. Medications given for these conditions can make dry eye or dry mouth symptoms more severe. Treating such patients with anti-inflammatory medications or diuretics (water pills) is not advisable. Before altering one’s Sjögren’s medications or their environment, the physician should strive to rule out co-morbidities or co-existing circumstances that may seemingly worsen Sjögren’s symptoms. 

5. Screening for head and neck emergencies or ares associated with non-extraglandular Sjögren’s

Patients with Sjögren’s whose disease is confined to the salivary glands, eye, head and neck areas occasionally develop complications, which may mandate emergent treatment. These include acute inflammation of the parotid gland (parotitis, or Mikulicz’s syndrome, with either a stone or focus of inflammation, treated with corticosteroids), corneal ulcerations, blocked salivary ducts (affecting the mouth), and dental caries or abscesses. Most Sjögren’s patients see a dentist 2-3 times a year to get their teeth cleaned, and are often frequent return visitors to their otolaryngologist (ENT doctor). 

In summary, screening for the five features reviewed above, can prevent or promote early treatment of the overwhelming complications with Sjögren’s.

This information was first printed in The Moisture Seekers, SSF's patient  
newsletter for members. 

Click Here to Receive our Newsletter  by Becoming an SSF Member 

Topics: Depression, Treatment, coping with sjogren's, Raynauds, Rituxan, Lupus, Lymphoma, Methotrexate

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