- Rheumatoid arthritis is two to three times more common in women than in men
- Using contraceptive pills for more than seven years lowers the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis
- The risk was also lowered in women who breastfed at least one child
Taking the contraceptive pills for more than seven years was found to be linked with a lowered risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, reveals a new study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.
However, there was no significant link found for breastfeeding, which is a practice that has been linked to a protective effect after accounting for various potentially influential factors.
‘The risk of rheumatoid arthritis is greater in people with Anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA).’
Rheumatoid arthritis is two to three times more common in women than in men, and this gender difference is due to the hormonal and reproductive factors. However, the research studies available till date produce equivocal results.
To study these issues in depth, the research team has looked at the possible link between the development of rheumatoid arthritis and the use of the contraceptive pill and breastfeeding among adult women who have had at least one child.
The data taken from the Swedish Epidemiological Investigation of Rheumatoid Arthritis (EIRA) included women aged 18 years and above, who were living in a defined area of Sweden in the years between 1996 and 2014.
During this timeframe, about 5312 women were randomly selected from the general population and were matched for age, acted as a comparison group and about 2809 women were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Blood samples were taken to check for antibodies (ACPA) to rheumatoid arthritis from all the participants in this study. The women were also quizzed in depth about their contraceptive and reproductive histories, their lifestyle practices, if they had breastfed their kids or not and also about their educational attainment.
Oral Contraceptive Lowered The Risk Of Developing Rheumatoid Arthritis
In the final analysis, all the 2578 women with arthritis were included along with 4129 women from the comparison group. Of these, the women who breastfed at least one child between 2006 and 2014 were about 884 with rheumatoid arthritis and 1949 from the comparison group.
Women who have used an oral contraceptive at any point of time were found to have a decreased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than those who had never used an oral contraceptive.
The risk was found to be 15 percent lower in current users of the Pill and 13 percent lower in past users and even after taking account of tobacco and alcohol consumption, the association was significant for women who tested positive for ACPA antibodies when compared with women who had never used an oral contraceptive.
Nine out of 10 people who were tested positive for ACPA (anti-citrullinated protein) antibodies had rheumatoid arthritis. The presence of these antibodies indicates more that the disease is more serious.
In this study, the average length of using the Pill among the participants was more than seven years and was associated with a 19 percent lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. These findings were the same both in the case of those who were tested positive and negative for ACPA.
Women who had breastfed at least one child were found to be at a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis but was not very significant after potentially influential factors were accounted for.
This is an observational study. Therefore no firm conclusions can be drawn from this about the cause and effect. The research team was unable to obtain any information regarding the dosage or the type of oral contraceptive the women used.
The research team points out that the number of participants involved in this study was huge and a wide range of potentially influential factors was also looked at.
What is Rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints, and the surrounding tissues is an autoimmune disease. It can occur at any age, but is more common in middle age and women are more prone to the disease than men.
The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis is unknown. Infection, genes and hormonal changes may be linked to the disease. It can lead to pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis being a systemic disease, it tends to affect other organs in the body as well.
There is no specific laboratory test to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis; the diagnosis is based on patient's medical history and physical examination. The rheumatoid factor (RF) is found in the blood and synovial fluid of 80 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis and can aid in diagnosis.
Rheumatoid arthritis requires lifelong treatment with medications, physical therapy, exercise, education and surgery and an early, aggressive treatment can delay joint destruction.