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Women who regularly use oral contraceptives may be at a lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
This is according to a new study led by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and published in the British Medical Journal, which adds to the body of evidence suggesting that hormonal and reproductive factors may explain why women are generally at greater risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than men.
The study findings
For this study, data was collated from the Swedish Epidemiological Investigation of Rheumatoid Arthritis on 2,809 women who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and 5,312 women without the disease.
It was found that women who had used an oral contraceptive at any time had a lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than those who had never done so, with the risk being 15 per cent lower in current users of the pill and 13 per cent lower in past users.
This association was also shown to be significant for women who tested positive for anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA), a marker frequently associated with more serious cases of rheumatoid arthritis. The link remained significant even after taking account of tobacco and alcohol consumption trends.
Overall, using the pill for more than seven years was associated with a 19 per cent lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, regardless of whether they tested positive or negative for ACPA.
The potential significance
The scale of this population-based study means that researchers were able to examine the potential impact of oral contraceptive use on rheumatoid arthritis more thoroughly than ever before, including specific assessments of separate disease subsets and with consideration of other risk factors and potential confounders.
The researchers added: "Further research is required to explore the biological mechanisms behind our findings and whether hormonal factors have different impact on the ACPA-subsets of rheumatoid arthritis."
Arthritis Research UK's view
Professor David Isenberg, Arthritis Research UK professor of rheumatology at University College London, said: "Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation, pain and swelling in the joints and affects more than 400,000 people in the UK. There are many different factors which may cause rheumatoid arthritis, and we know that women are two to three times more likely than men to develop the condition.
"This is a really interesting study that will help us to further understand some of these factors, especially the role of hormones. However, what this study doesn't tell us is exactly how the oral contraceptive pill can help to lower the risk of developing the condition.
"If you are worried about symptoms you have or about the risk factors of arthritis, please speak to your GP or rheumatologist."
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