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Women With Rheumatoid Arthritis More Likely to Develop Osteoporosis

A new study shows that women who have rheumatoid arthritis, a condition in which the immune system attacks its own joint tissue, may be twice as likely to develop osteoporosis compared with healthy women. Osteoporosis is a degenerative bone disease affecting one third of post-menopausal women.  According to researchers, women with rheumatoid arthritis are at a high risk of developing osteoporosis and those who use steroid drugs to help control the arthritis are at an even higher risk of bone loss.

The study, published in the March 2000 issue of Arthritis and Rheumatism, followed 394 women with rheumatoid arthritis between the ages of 20 and 70.  They found significant reductions in bone mineral density in the 394 women compared with healthy American and European women.  The average reduction in bone mineral density among rheumatoid arthritis patients was 27.6% in the femoral neck, 31.6% in the total hip, and 19.6% in part of the spine.  Older women (between 60 and 70 years old) were more likely to have reductions in bone mineral density at all three sites (the neck, hip, and spine). 

According to Kenneth Saag, MD, all women with rheumatoid arthritis are at a very high risk of developing osteoporosis: twice as high as healthy women.  Furthermore, the use of steroids to control rheumatoid arthritis put women at an even higher risk.  The highest frequency of reduced bone mineral density occurred in patients who used prednisone, a certain type of steroid used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.  

Researchers say that women with rheumatoid arthritis should be routinely screened for osteoporosis.  Currently, less than 15% of rheumatoid arthritis patients on prednisone have bone mineral density tests . Dr. Saag advises women with rheumatoid arthritis to ask their physicians about beginning osteoporosis screening exams, especially if they are older and are taking prednisone. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease that can cause pain, stiffness, and inflammation of the joints.  Researchers are still unsure of the exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis but believe it may be a combination of genetic factors, an abnormal autoimmune response, and a viral infection.  It is estimated that 2.5 million Americans suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, 60% of them women. 

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