EULAR recommendations on steroids: ‘As necessary but as little as possible’

YOUR DOSE OF MEDICINE - Charles C. Chante MD (The Philippine Star) - October 20, 2019 - 12:00am

Glucocorticosteroids remain an important therapeutic option for many patients with rheumatic and nonrheumatic disease, but careful assessment of their relative benefits and risks needs to be considered when prescribing, according to an expert summary of currently available European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) recommendations.

From rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) to vasculitis, myositis, and even gout, steroids are widely used in the rheumatic diseases. “These are strong-acting, rapidly acting, efficacious drugs.”

While effective at reducing inflammation and providing immunosuppression, they are, of course, not without their well-known risks. Some of the well-documented risks he pointed out were the development of osteoporosis, myopathy, and edema; the disruption of lipid and carbohydrate metabolism; and the risk of developing glaucoma and cataracts.

This leads to the question on how to optimize the use of these drugs. “EULAR is constantly working to improve its guidelines,” and updating these in line with the available evidence. “The bottom line is always give as much as necessary but as little as possible.

Over the past few years, EULAR’s Glucocorticoid Task Force has been reviewing and updating recommendations on the use of these drugs and it has published several important documents clarifying their use in RA and in PMR. The task force has also published a viewpoint article on the long-term use of steroids, defining the conditions where an “acceptably low level of harm” might exist to enable their continued use. There have also been separate recommendations, published in 2010, on how to monitor these drugs.

Clarifying the role of steroids in rheumatoid arthritis

The latest (2016) EULAR recommendations on the use of glucocorticosteroids were published and included an important adjustment on when they should be initially used in RA. Previous recommendations had said that steroids could be combined with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) but had suggested that they be used at a low dose. Now the wording has changed to focus on short-term use rather than dosing.

Glucocorticoids can be given initially at different dosages, and using different routes of administration. Congress. The practice on what dose to give varies from country to country, he noted, so the recommendations are now being less prescriptive.

We have made it clear that glucocorticoids should really be used only when initiating conventional synthetic DMARDs, but not necessarily if you switch to biologics or targeted synthetics because usually the onset of their actions is pretty fast.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that steroid should be tapered down as “rapidly as clinically feasible” until, ideally, their full withdrawal. Although there are cases when that might not be possible, and their long-term use might be warranted. This is when you get into discussion about the benefit-to-risk ratio.

Using steroids for polymyalgia rheumatica

Steroids may be used as monotherapy in patients with PMR, which is in contrast to other conditions such as RA. Although the evidence for use of steroids in PMR is limited, the EULAR Glucocorticoid Task Force and American College of Rheumatology recommended using a starting dose of a prednisolone-equivalent dose between 12.5 and 25 mg/day, and if there is an improvement in few weeks, the dose can start to be reduced. Tapering should be rapid at first to bring the dose down to 10 mg/day and followed by a more gradual dose-reduction phase.

So, you can see we are giving more or less precise recommendations on how to start, how to taper.

Balancing long-term benefit vs. harm

Balancing the long-term benefits and risks of steroids in rheumatic disease was the focus of a EULAR viewpoint article published three years ago in 2015.

Three main messages can be drawn out of this work. First, treatment with steroids for 3-6 months is associated with more benefits than risks if doses of 5 mg/day or less are used. There is one important exception to this, however, and that is the use of steroids in patients with comorbid cardiovascular disease.

Second, using doses of 10 mg/day for long periods tips the balance toward more risks than benefits, and “this means you should avoid this. Third, doses of 5-10 mg/day may be appropriate, but there are certain patient factors that will influence the benefit-to-harm ratio that need to be considered. These include older age, smoking, high alcohol consumption, and poor nutrition. There are also factors that may help protect the patients from risk, such as early diagnosis, low disease activity, low cumulative dose of steroids, and a shorter duration of treatment.

“It’s not only the dose, it’s also the absence or presence of risk factors and/or preventive measures.

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