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Obesity Could Contribute to Rheumatoid Arthritis Development (November 13, 2012)

While most people associate arthritis with aging and over-use of delicate joints, this isn't the only form that it can take. Rheumatoid arthritis rheumatoid arthritis is a specific type of arthritis that occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own connective tissues. It can cause debilitating and painful joint inflammation and may be connected with hormone levels. Recent research suggests that proteins produced in fat cells may also play a role in whether or not develops. A rheumatoid factor (RF) blood test, available from Health Testing Centers, can be used to help diagnose rheumatoid arthritis. A high-sensitivity C-reactive protein test (hs-CRP) can also be used to measure inflammation associated with the disease.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Vs. Osteoarthritis

The kind of arthritis that usually affects people as they age is known as osteoarthritis. This condition is caused by long-term wear on joints, so it often appears in the hands, knees and other frequently-used parts of the body. Most people don't get osteoarthritis until they're relatively old. By comparison, rheumatoid arthritis can happen at almost any age and occurs when the immune system attacks the lining around joints. The result is inflammation that can damage other tissues, including cartilage and bone. The Arthritis Foundation provides support and resources for those afflicted with the disease.

Risks Increase for Obese People

According to researchers from the Mayo Clinic, people who are considered to be obese are more likely to get rheumatoid arthritis than those who weigh less. While it's long been thought that extra stress on the joints can cause them to hurt, this link is not actually connected to additional joint strain. Instead, it seems to be related to the actual activity of fat cells. Fat cells aren't just inert storers of excess weight. They're actually an active part of the immune system and are involved in estrogen production.

Estrogen's role in the development of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions is what causes women to have almost twice the risk of developing these diseases compared to men. About 75 percent of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers are women. The increased estrogen production associated with fat cells could be linked to the increase in arthritis rates over the past several decades, since the average weight in developed countries has been rising.

Estrogen Link Still Unclear

The estrogen link to rheumatoid arthritis still isn't clear-cut, however. Estrogen replacement and oral contraceptive studies haven't shown the kind of direct response that would be expected if estrogen alone were responsible for causing rheumatoid arthritis to develop. The hormonal link remains puzzling and complicated, so more studies will be needed to determine how it works. In the meantime, patients can request hormonal testing  find out whether their estrogen levels fall into the normal range.

Can Losing Weight Help?

Simply because obesity may increase a person's risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis doesn't automatically mean that losing that weight will make the situation better. It may, however, reduce the amount of stress on inflamed, painful joints. Many people with high body mass also find that they react poorly to the drugs usually used for rheumatoid arthritis, and losing weight can improve response to this medication. The actual weight loss process can be difficult if inflammation is already present, however. This is due to the difficulty that most rheumatoid arthritis sufferers have in staying as active as they once did. Low-impact exercises, such as swimming, may work for some sufferers.

When in doubt, patients should talk to their doctors about their personal difficulties and the best strategies to produce slow, sustainable weight loss. People who don't currently have rheumatoid arthritis but are concerned about developing it can work to maintain a healthy diet and activity level, which are often correlated with lower weights. This is especially important for people who have family members with inflammatory diseases, since the condition is partially genetic. Testing for levels of inflammation using a hs-CRP can also help head off the disease and allow patients to receive treatment before their symptoms become severe.