Objectives: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that occurs more commonly in women and frequently onsets in women of childbearing age. Pregnancy often causes disease remission, with a subsequent flare postpartum. Nulliparity may be a risk factor for RA, but the literature does not consistently report this finding. There may be a production of antibodies in women with RA that could lead to infertility, and subsequent nulliparity, but this has not been proved. We wanted to determine whether there was a relationship between nulliparity, infertility, oral contraceptive use, and adverse pregnancy outcome in women with newly diagnosed RA.
Methods: Through a case control study, using a mailed questionnaire, we compared the fertility and pregnancy outcome histories of 34 women between the ages of 19 and 44 years with recent-onset RA with 68 healthy controls matched for age and marital status. The response rate was 97%. A review of the literature also was performed to study the associations between RA and infertility and nulliparity, using Medline searching key references.
Results: We found no association between infertility and the onset of RA. Seventy-one percent of women with RA and 68% of controls had been pregnant. There was a trend toward increased nulliparity in these patients, but the result was not statistically significant (odds ratio [OR], 1.4; P<.6). There were no differences in the number of children (2.6 v. 2.7; P<.6) and parity outcomes in the two groups. Age at first pregnancy was younger in the women with RA (22.6 v. 25.5 years; P<.008), but the education level was higher in the controls (P<.0001), which may explain these differences. Oral contraceptive use was lower in the RA women, but more RA women had long-term use (greater than or equal to 5 years), and neither result was statistically significant. Literature review shows that at best, there are weak negative associations between current estrogen use and RA, and no association with nulliparity and infertility.
Conclusions: It appears that infertility, the number of pregnancies, and pregnancy outcome are not strongly associated with the risk of developing RA in women of childbearing age. However, in this study there may have been selection biases in the women with RA and the controls that differentially could have affected their reproductive outcomes. Thus, a true association could have been missed. Most other published studies find no association between nulliparity and RA.