History of gold injections
Gold injections were the standard treatment for moderately to severely active rheumatoid arthritis in the 1920s. At that time, similar gold compounds were used to treat tuberculosis, an infectious disease that attacks the lungs and spreads to the rest of the body. Researchers believed that rheumatoid arthritis and tuberculosis were related diseases, but the theory has long been disproven. In studying RA as a separate illness, it was then confirmed that gold injections did indeed provide symptom relief.
The compound injected into patients is called sodium aurothiomalate, which contains trace amounts of gold, earning the treatment its name. The compound is a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD), a class of drugs which has inflammation-blocking properties. DMARDs suppress the immune system in order to stop inflammation, which can erode joints and body tissues to the point of disability if not blocked.
Exactly how the gold injections function has remained an understudied mystery. The evidence that gold injections have anti-inflammatory properties is indisputable, and researchers hope that in understanding exactly how sodium aurothiomalate blocks the immune system, they may find a key factor in understanding other inflammatory diseases.
As with any drug that inhibits or limits the immune response, gold injections can significantly increase the risk of illness. In addition to the risk of illness, gold injections led to a significant number of severe side effects. Other DMARDs became more popular, until methotrexate was created, which is both safer and more effective than gold treatments. Now, gold injections are rarely, if ever, prescribed.