Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory disease, strikes women at higher rates than men. Between 1955 and 1994, the overall number of cases of rheumatoid arthritis declined. Since 1995, however, the incidence and prevalence of RA in women is increasing. There hasn't been a corresponding rate increase in men with this disease.

Factors related to women's reproductive capabilities may be associated with rheumatoid arthritis, although scientists are still trying to understand the specific mechanisms at work. Here are a few factors specific to women that may be associated with RA.


A study published in mid-2009 found that women who had never given birth were likely to be diagnosed with chronic arthritis an average of 5.2 years before women who had given birth, suggesting that pregnancy may provide protection against arthritis. These results corroborated findings from some earlier studies that concluded childlessness might be a risk factor for RA.

Hormonal factors related to pregnancy may also play a role in arthritis, although the link-how and why-is not entirely clear. Pregnancy often causes arthritis to go into remission. However, women with RA are also more likely to have a flare after giving birth.


The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, cautions that breastfeeding may aggravate arthritis. On the other hand, some published studies report that women who breastfeed for more than one year halve their risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. Women who breastfeed their baby for 12 or fewer months decreased their risk by 25 percent.

Age at first pregnancy

Women with rheumatoid arthritis tend to have their first child at younger ages than women who don't have the disease, although there's not necessarily an association between these two variables. Researchers found that women diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when they were 18 or younger, or before their first child, had fewer pregnancies and fewer children than healthy women did.

Oral contraceptives

Oral contraceptive use may also affect the likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis, although birth control pills and pregnancy don't significantly influence a woman's disease outcome over the long term. In 2002, researchers found that the trend for arthritis patients with multiple pregnancies and long-term oral contraceptive use was less joint damage and a better functional level.