OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effect of early 'aggressive' drug treatment on radiographic progression in patients with recent-onset rheumatoid arthritis (RA), compared to conventional stepwise increasing intensity of treatment. DESIGN: Prospective follow-up study with an experimental group and a historical control group both divided into a high-risk subgroup and a low-risk subgroup, based on prognostic factors. The effect of the 'aggressive' and the conventional treatment strategy was compared between both high-risk groups; the low-risk groups, both treated according to the conventional treatment strategy, were used to ensure internal consistency between the experimental and the historical groups. PATIENTS: A total of 228 consecutive patients with recent-onset RA (complaints < 1 yr at study entry). METHODS: The 'aggressive' drug treatment consisted of institution of relatively fast-acting disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (sulphasalazine, methotrexate) immediately after diagnosis, and rapid adjustment of dosage and/or drug in the case of insufficient response as measured by a change in C-reactive protein (CRP) level. Radiographic damage was assessed according to a modified version of Sharp's method and cumulative disease activity expressed as CRP-area under the curve (CRP-AUC). The occurrence of side-effects was also evaluated. RESULTS: After 2 yr of follow-up, comparison of the two high-risk subgroups showed the radiographic progression in the 'aggressively' treated subgroup to be significantly lower than that in the control group [Sharp score: median (range) 26 (0-100) vs 35 (1-188); P = 0.03]. Cumulative CRP values were also significantly lower than in the control high-risk subgroup [CRP-AUC: median (range) 1963 (212-8515) vs 3025 (46-15 632) mg.week/1; P = 0.002). This was achieved without an increase in the occurrence of side-effects. There was no difference between the two low-risk subgroups with regard to entry characteristics, CRP-AUC values or radiological progression, indicating comparability between the two groups. CONCLUSION: Early 'aggressive' drug treatment, using sulphasalazine and/or methotrexate, aimed at reduction of the CRP level, significantly reduces the (rate of) radiographic progression in RA.