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Extended report
Fatigue in rheumatoid arthritis; a persistent problem: a large longitudinal study
  1. Hanna W van Steenbergen1,
  2. Roula Tsonaka2,
  3. Tom W J Huizinga1,
  4. Annelies Boonen3 and
  5. Annette H M van der Helm-van Mil1
  1. 1Department of Rheumatology, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands
  2. 2Department of Medical Statistics, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands
  3. 3Department of Rheumatology, University Hospital Maastricht, Maastricht, The Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to Hanna W van Steenbergen; H.W.van_Steenbergen{at}


Objective Fatigue is prevalent and disabling in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Surprisingly, the long-term course of fatigue is studied seldom and it is unclear to what extent it is influenced by inflammation. This study aimed to determine the course of fatigue during 8 years follow-up, its association with the severity of inflammation and the effect of improved treatment strategies.

Methods 626 patients with RA included in the Leiden Early Arthritis Clinic cohort were studied during 8 years. Fatigue severity, measured on a 0–100 mm scale, and other clinical variables were assessed yearly. Patients included in 1993–1995, 1996–1998 and 1999–2007 were treated with delayed treatment with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), early treatment with mild DMARDs and early treatment with methotrexate respectively. After multiple imputation, the serial measurements were analysed using linear quantile mixed models.

Results Median fatigue severity at baseline was 45 mm and remained, despite treatment, rather stable thereafter. Female gender (effect size=4.4 mm), younger age (0.2 mm less fatigue/year), higher swollen and tender joint counts (0.3 mm and 1.0 mm more fatigue/swollen or tender joint) and C reactive protein-levels (0.1 mm more fatigue per mg/L) were independently and significantly (p<0.05) associated with fatigue severity over 8 years. Although improved treatment strategies associated with less severe radiographic progression, there was no effect on fatigue severity (p=0.96).

Conclusions This largest longitudinal study on fatigue so far demonstrated that the association between inflammation and fatigue is statistically significant but effect sizes are small, suggesting that non-inflammatory pathways mediate fatigue as well. Improved treatment strategies did not result in less severe fatigue. Therefore, fatigue in RA remains an ‘unmet need’.

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Outcomes research
  • Patient perspective
  • Inflammation

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