Can Psoriatic Arthritis Go Away on Its Own?

Ask a Doctor

If I do nothing about my psoriatic arthritis, can it go away on its own? Is there any cure for psoriatic arthritis?

Doctor’s Response

No. Psoriatic arthritis tends to alternate between flare-ups and periods of improvement. It leads to joint damage and severe disability in many of the people it affects.

Some people may need surgery.

The following factors influence how severe your psoriatic arthritis will be:

  • Clinical pattern (see symptoms)
  • Symptoms beginning when you are young
  • Severity of skin symptoms
  • Female sex
  • Family history of arthritis

Rarely, complications such as joint dislocations of the neck and leaking of the heart valves may develop.

Initial medical treatment consists of NSAIDs for your joints and creams or ointments for your skin. In many people, this is enough to control symptoms. A few people may experience worse skin symptoms from the NSAID they are taking. In this case, the doctor will prescribe a different NSAID.

In one study, 7% of people with psoriatic arthritis needed surgical treatment. If psoriatic arthritis affects one particular joint severely and over a long period, that joint may be surgically treated. Joint replacement is occasionally necessary.

There are three basic types of medical treatments for psoriasis: (1) topical therapy (drugs used on the skin), (2) phototherapy (light therapy), and (3) systemic therapy (drugs taken into the body). All of these treatments may be used alone or in combination.

  • Topical agents: Medications applied directly to the skin are the first course of treatment options. The main topical treatments are corticosteroids, vitamin D-3 derivatives, coal tar, anthralin, or retinoids. There isn't one topical drug that is best for all people with psoriasis. Because each drug has specific adverse effects, it is common to rotate them. Sometimes drugs are combined with other drugs to make a preparation that is more helpful than an individual topical medication. For example, keratolytics (substances used to break down scales or excess skin cells) are often added to these preparations. Some drugs are incompatible with the active ingredients of these preparations. For example, salicylic acid (a component of aspirin) inactivates calcipotriene (form of vitamin D-3). On the other hand, drugs such as anthralin (tree bark extract) may require addition of salicylic acid to work effectively.
  • Phototherapy (light therapy): The ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun slows the production of skin cells and reduces inflammation. Sunlight helps reduce psoriasis symptoms in some people. If psoriasis is widespread, as defined by more patches than can easily be counted, then artificial light therapy may be used. Resistance to topical treatment is another indication for light therapy. Proper facilities are required for the two main forms of light therapy. The medical light source in a physician's office is not the same as the light sources generally found in tanning salons.
    • UV-B: Ultraviolet B (UV-B) light is used to treat psoriasis. UV-B is light with wavelengths of 290-320 nanometers (nm). (The visible light range is 400-700 nm.) UV-B therapy is usually combined with one or more topical treatments. UV-B phototherapy is extremely effective for treating moderate to severe plaque psoriasis. The major drawbacks of this therapy are the time commitment required for treatments and the accessibility of UV-B equipment. New UVB lasers are also available for the treatment of localized plaques of psoriasis.
      • The Goeckerman regimen uses coal tar followed by UV-B exposure and has been shown to cause remission in many patients. Patients may complain of the strong odor when coal tar is added.
      • In the Ingram method, the drug anthralin is applied to the skin after a tar bath and UV-B treatment.
      • UV-B therapy is usually combined with the topical application of corticosteroids, calcipotriene (Dovonex), tazarotene (Tazorac), or creams or ointments that soothe and soften the skin.
    • PUVA: PUVA is the therapy that combines a psoralen drug with ultraviolet A (UV-A) light therapy. Psoralen drugs make the skin more sensitive to light and the sun. Methoxsalen is a psoralen that is taken by mouth several hours before UV-A light therapy. UV-A is light with wavelengths of 320-400 nm. Many patients report relief of disease symptoms with 20-30 treatments. Therapy is usually given two to three times per week on an outpatient basis, with maintenance treatments every two to four weeks until remission. Adverse effects of PUVA therapy include nausea, itching, and burning. Long-term health complications include increased risks of sensitivity to the sun, sunburn, skin cancer, and cataracts.
  • Systemic agents (drugs that spread throughout the body): These drugs are generally started only after both topical treatment and phototherapy have failed. Systemic agents may be considered for active psoriatic arthritis. In some cases, your health care provider may inject your joint with a steroid cortisone medication to relieve inflammation.

For more information, read our full medical article on psoriatic arthritis.

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Klippel, J.H., et al. Primer on the Rheumatic Diseases. New York: Springer, 2008.