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Study: Alcohol Helps Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

But Expert Calls Findings 'Weak Science'
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 28, 2010 -- Rheumatoid arthritis patients who drink alcohol tend to have less severe symptoms than those who don’t, a new study finds.

Earlier research has shown that compared to teetotalers, alcohol drinkers are less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, a progressive and often disabling inflammatory disease that attacks the joints.

But the study is the first to suggest drinking alcohol can lessen the severity of symptoms in people who already have the disease.

Patients in the study who drank at least 10 alcoholic beverages a month had 20% to 30% less pain and inflammation than patients who didn’t drink alcohol, rheumatologist and study co-author James Maxwell of England's University of Sheffield tells WebMD.

While he acknowledges more study is needed to confirm the association, Maxwell says the evidence is mounting that moderate alcohol consumption reduces both the risk and severity of rheumatoid arthritis.

“Generally speaking, it appears that drinking alcohol in moderation may benefit patients with rheumatoid arthritis.”

Arthritis Expert Unconvinced

But an arthritis specialist who spoke to WebMD remains unconvinced, calling the study "very weak science.”

Rheumatologist Nortin M. Hadler, MD, who is a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, says many previous studies have linked moderate alcohol consumption with longer life and better health.

“But before anyone leaps to the bottle, realize that in many resource-advantaged countries this ‘moderate’ level of imbibition is associated with higher socioeconomic status, which itself bodes well for mortality and for rheumatoid arthritis prognosis,” he writes in an email.

Many patients with rheumatoid arthritis, especially those who take the drug methotrexate, are advised not to drink alcohol because methotrexate and alcohol can be toxic to the liver.

Hadler says he discusses these risks with his patients and urges them to limit their alcohol consumption if they choose to drink.

RA Risk 4 Times Greater in Non-Drinkers

In the study, which was published online in the journal Rheumatology, 873 people with rheumatoid arthritis and 1,004 people without the disease were asked to recall their alcohol consumption during the previous month.

Participants were also given X-rays and blood tests to measure inflammation and other markers of joint damage and disease progression.

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