Rheumatoid arthritis is often thought to be a condition that exclusively affects the elderly, and is simply an inevitable consequence of getting older. However, there are many factors which can increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis that have nothing to do with age. Researchers have found that a significant factor in a person's arthritis risk can actually be the job which one works at every day. Researchers believe that this points to a systematic problem with these types of jobs in that they often put too much stress on one's joints.
The study is authored by Anna Ilar, a doctoral student in epidemiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The study looked at more than 3,500 people in Sweden who were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and 5,600 people who weren't. Researchers controlled four lifestyle factors that could lead to rheumatoid arthritis like body mass index, smoking, alcohol consumption, and education level. The study involved getting blood samples from the subjects and running tests on the samples. Researchers then calculated the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis using logistic regression.
Among men, those in manufacturing jobs had a much higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than those in the professional, administrative, and technological sectors. The risk was twice as high for electricians and those working with electronics, and three times as high for brick layers and concrete workers. Among women, assistant nurses and attendants had a slightly higher risk, but women in manufacturing jobs did not. Researchers believe this is due to the small number of women in the manufacturing industry, which might have skewed the results.
Researchers believe that these high-risk jobs expose workers to airborne substances that could cause a chemical reaction that causes a higher chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis. These substances include mineral oil, asbestos, textile dust, pesticides, solvents, and traffic pollutants. The presence of silica could also greatly increase the risk of arthritis.
Researchers also believed that a major factor when looking at both men and women is how physically demanding their work is. Brick layers and concrete workers are often carrying heavy materials, operating heavy machinery, and constantly lifting, pushing, and pulling. Nurses similarly end up carrying heavy objects and working with their hands often.
The author and her colleagues did point out that they did not prove a cause and effect relationship between these factors and rheumatoid arthritis. Many of these findings could be simply correlational. The researchers also stated that there would need to be more testing done to determine exactly how much physically demanding jobs or substance exposure can actually increase the risk of arthritis.
How to Mitigate Occupational Risks
If you are reading this and realize your job is similar to those described above, you may be at an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. While it would be very easy for us to recommend you quit and find a different job, that may not be feasible for a number of reasons. However, there are things that you can do to mitigate these risks when going to work. Below are a few things you should be doing to reduce your risk as much as possible.
Reduce Inhalation - Inhaling the materials in the study could greatly increase the risk of arthritis. Reducing the amount of these materials inhaled can greatly reduce the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. The most effective way to avoid inhaling airborne pathogens is the use of half-facepiece particulate respirators with N95 or better filters. While it may be tempting to just wear a simple mask, this often is not effective in preventing inhalation. You should also keep in mind that OSHA (The U.S. government organization that is tasked with protecting workers) has set very strict limits on the amount of these airborne materials workers can be exposed to, and requires employers to provide sufficiently protective respirators. If you feel that your workplace is unsafe, consider contacting OSHA or other local labor rights organizations in your area.
Take Breaks - If your job is very physically demanding, taking frequent breaks is important. Doing stressful motions over and over without giving your body a break will deteriorate your muscles and joints, and make them more susceptible to pain in the form of arthritis. Even taking just five minutes in between tasks can give your body some time to recuperate. You don't necessarily need to stop working to take a break. Consider moving to less physically demanding tasks, or switching up the movements you are doing frequently. This will reduce repetitive stress on the joints while ensuring that you are still productive.
Stretching - Stretching is very important if you have a very physically demanding job. Stretching out your joints, tendons, and muscles makes them looser, less prone to injury, and reduces pain. A common misconception is that it is best to stretch before performing physical activity. While this can be helpful, it is much more important to stretch right after the activity (when your muscles are fatigued and your joints are stressed). Taking a few minutes or even seconds to stretch after performing a demanding task will do wonders in preventing joint problems including arthritis. You can also take ten to fifteen minutes to do stretches of all the major parts of the body right before bed or during a lunch break.
Early Signs of Rheumatoid Arthritis
If you or your loved one is involved in an occupation that increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, you may wonder what to look out for to know whether you are developing it or not. If it is caught early you and your doctor can begin to treat it more easily and create a more effective treatment plan. Here are a few warning signs that you may be developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Stiffness - If your joint often feels stiff, even when you are not physically active, you may be developing arthritis. This stiffness can last for a few minutes or even a few hours. Typically the joints in your hands will be the first to feel stiff. Morning stiffness (or stiffness when waking up from sleep or a nap) is also common in those developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Pain - Joint pain is another early sign of arthritis. Most of the time this pain will be in and around the fingers and wrists. This could involve pain due to movement, but these joints could very well hurt during periods of rest as well. This pain also lasts over a long period of time and doesn't seem to be caused by any particular injury.
Joint Swelling - Inflammation and swelling can point towards the development of arthritis. You will often feel if the joints are swollen, and in some cases they may cause visible swelling in the body part themselves. Swollen joints are also warm to the touch, so if you find a certain part of your body warmer than normal it could be a sign of a swollen joint.
These are only a few early warning signs of rheumatoid arthritis. In general, if you find your body functioning differently than normal for long periods of time you should consult your doctor. This is no different for rheumatoid arthritis. If you notice increasing joint stiffness, pain, swelling, and a decrease in energy levels and range of motion, you should consult your doctor as soon as possible.
This groundbreaking study could solidify a link between certain occupations and a heightened risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Further studies will be needed to determine exactly how much higher the risk is for these populations, but it is important for certain workers to know they may be at risk. For more information on rheumatoid arthritis, be sure to check out the rest of our articles.