Rheumatoid arthritis on increase among women

April 15, 2009


The overall rate of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has been decreasing for 40 years, currently down to 2.1 million from the 3 million recorded in 1995. However, it has substantially increased among women according to a study done at the Mayo Clinic and presented the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology/Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals in San Francisco.

RA is a chronic inflammation of the joints caused when the body’s immune system destroys its own tissue, unlike osteoarthritis, which is caused by external damage to joints and connective tissue. Throughout the world, RA is generally more common in women than in men, which suggests that hormones may be playing a part. This is borne out by the fact that it usually goes into remission during pregnancy, and is very unusual for the disease to begin at that time. However, in the few weeks after delivery, women with RA often experience a relapse and there is a much higher frequency of development of RA. This may be because prolactin, the hormone which is responsible for milk production, enhances inflammation which is a key factor in RA.

Surprisingly, RA is also a relatively modern disease as it was unknown in Europe before 1800 which suggests either environmental or nutritional factors have played a part in its spread. It was first documented in North America where Native American skeletons dating back several thousand years show evidence of RA and they currently have the highest incidence of the disease anywhere in the world. Certainly RA is much less common in underdeveloped countries and rural areas with virtually no cases in Africa, China and Indonesia though it is found in those groups which move to an urban lifestyle in the city and change both their environment and their diet.

Until 1994 the rate of RA amongst women was only 36 per 100,000, but by 2005 it had grown to 54 per 100,000 while the rate amongst men for the same period stayed constant. This increase has prompted the researchers at the Mayo clinic to now investigate further to try and establish what has caused this rise.

Conventional treatment for RA usually involves painkillers such as paracetamol or NSAID’s such as ibuprofen to reduce inflammation which may relieve pain and swelling. Prescribed drugs such as sulfasalazine and methotrexate work to slow down the disease process and delay joint damage though they are often given in multiples and you will often have to experiment with different dosages and mixes. There are now four new medicines, infliximab, etanercept, adalimumab and rituximab, on the market which your doctor may prescribe if previous medications haven’t worked. Unfortunately, various medical studies have repeatedly shown that taking traditional painkilling drugs like ibuprofen and diclofenac have a 55% and 24% increased risk of heart attack respectively and can also increase your risk of peptic ulcers, diabetes and breast cancer.

There are also many self-help measures you can take to ease the symptoms, but not to eradicate the disease. Start with a simple hot water bottle, or ice pack, to relieve swelling and pain and try to find the right balance for you between exercise and rest. You may be recommended to see a physiotherapist and you need to try and keep your joints supple with some exercise, and swimming is ideal as it puts no strain on them. Being overweight will cause extra problems for your joints

Professor David L Scott, of Kings College Hospital, London did a study on patients who used complementary and alternative medicines and found it was over half of the UK and other Western countries who were using homoeopathy, acupuncture and aromatherapy to ease their RA symptoms. The first trial of homeopathic treatment with RA was published in a mainstream medical journal in 1980 on patients from Glasgow. It showed the patients had significant improvements in pain, joint tenderness and stiffness and two other trials in Germany showed equally positive results. Acupuncture has long been proven to be able to relieve pain – often being used instead of an anaesthetic in childbirth and clinical operations. A qualified aromatherapist will be able to create a mix of oils that can soothe pain and inflammation as well as helping relax and distress you.


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