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Dr. Rand Sommer, St. Luke's Hospital

Rheumatoid arthritis more common in women

Not many people know that rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is just one of approximately 100 forms of arthritis now diagnosed, but it can be one of the most traumatic.

Little is known about why the disease occurs, but it most commonly affects the joints in the hands and feet. RA is categorized as an autoimmune disease, meaning the condition is a result of the body's immune system attacking its own tissues and joints. Because of this, the body reacts by releasing fluid that tends to build up in the joints which results in the symptoms that persist in patients with RA - pain, stiffness, inflammation and swelling.

RA is a chronic disease that affects about 1.3 million Americans, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Nearly three times as many women are affected by the disease than men. Women commonly begin showing symptoms of the disease between the ages of 30 and 60. There is no known cause for RA, but many in the medical field believe it could be the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Other suspected causes include bacteria or viruses, female hormones and the body's reaction to stressful events or trauma. Smoking is also thought to contribute to the likelihood of developing the disease.

A recent study suggested women who eat fish regularly may lower their risk of developing RA. More than 32,000 Swedish women were followed during the study which found that those women who ate fish at least once a week were 29 percent less likely to develop the disease than those who consumed it less often. The direct correlation is unclear, but we do know that fish oil can reduce inflammation, which might give a clue as to why the results of the study were promising.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for RA. Flare-ups or symptoms vary from person to person and can lay dormant for some people for extended periods of time. Medications, therapy and exercise are the most common treatment options. Consult with your doctor to determine which plan is best for you.

Dr. Rand Sommer specializes in rheumatology and internal medicine at St. Luke's Hospital. To attend a free seminar about RA on November 19, 2013, visit the ReThink RA with Celebrity Chef Seamus Mullen page or call 314-542-4848.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on October 17, 2013.