Could your job be putting you at an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis? This was the question posed by a group of researchers from the Karolinka Institute in Sweden.
Led by Anna Ilar, the researchers set out to discover if certain occupational hazards increase the likelihood of developing the condition in susceptible individuals. Their findings were published in August 2017 in Arthritis Care and Research.
What causes rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that is caused by the immune system attacking healthy body tissue. Scientists don’t fully understand what triggers this. Our immune system is normally there to keep us safe from infection, making antibodies that attack bacteria and viruses.
However, with rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system mistakenly sends antibodies to the linings of your joints where they attack healthy tissue surrounding the joint. If the condition isn’t treated, the release of chemicals from the damaged tissues can distort and eventually destroy the joint.
The Swedish study analysed more than 3,500 people with rheumatoid arthritis alongside a control group of over 5,500 from the Swedish population-based Epidemiological Investigation of Rheumatoid Arthritis (EIRA) study. Based on blood samples and questionnaires taken between 1996 and 2014, the researchers gathered information on environmental, genetic and immunological factors.
It also took into account lifestyle-related risk factors that are known to be associated with rheumatoid arthritis. These include smoking, drinking alcohol, educational level and body mass index.
The study found that:
- Men who work in manufacturing had a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than workers in professional, administrative and technical sectors.
- Male electrical, electronic workers and materials handling operators were twice as likely to develop the condition compared to the control group.
- Bricklayers and concrete workers were three times more likely.
- Among women, assistant nurses and attendants had a slightly increased risk.
- Women who worked in manufacturing did not have a higher risk, however this may have been because there was a relatively small number of them compared to men.
Researchers concluded that work-related factors, such as exposure to airborne chemicals, may increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Possible culprits include silica, asbestos, organic solvents and exhaust emissions. They said more research was needed to determine the precise links.
Symptoms and treatment options for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Currently there is no proven way to prevent or cure rheumatoid arthritis, however progression of the disease can normally be stopped or slowed by early treatment, so it is important to visit your doctor as soon as possible if you notice any possible symptoms.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- joint pain and swelling
- fatigue, excessive tiredness
- depression, irritability
- feeling generally unwell, hot and sweating similar to flu
- sudden weight loss
- inflammation in the eyes
- fleshy lumps below the elbows, on the hands or feet
There are a number of treatments that can help to manage symptoms. These include:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs
- steroids – tablets or injections
- exercise and physiotherapy, or hydrotherapy
- specialist footwear to support your joints
- surgery, ranging from minor surgery to release a nerve or tendon to major surgery such as a joint replacement
Speaking to an orthopaedics specialist will give you an accurate diagnosis and an outline of your options.