Could Hemochromatosis be a Factor in Your Arthritis?

Hemochromatosis, a form of iron overload, occurs when the body absorbs and stores too much iron. While healthy people absorb about 10 percent of the iron they eat, people with hemochromatosis can absorb up to 30 percent of the iron they ingest. Since the human body cannot rid itself of iron, over the years hemochromatosis can lead to a level of iron in the body that is five to 20 times more than is healthy.

The disease, which can be either hereditary or caused by anemia, alcoholism, or other factors, may lead to a host of complications. The most common symptom of hemochromatosis is joint pain, which may lead sufferers to believe they have arthritis. Actually, the disease can lead to arthritis. Researchers believe this is due to years and years of iron buildup in the cartilage between the joints. Hemochromatosis can also, if left unchecked, damage the heart, liver, and other vital organs.

If you have joint pain, how do you know if hemochromatosis is responsible? Your doctor may perform certain procedures to be sure. A blood test can tell you if your iron stores are too high and various other tests can ascertain how well your blood carries iron, and how much iron is in your liver. If necessary, a liver biopsy may be ordered. Once diagnosis is confirmed, the disease can be treated by a hepatologist, hematologist, or gastroenterologist, with other specialists involved as necessary.

Although it sounds archaic, the standard treatment for hemochromatosis is the removal of blood from the body. Depending on the severity of the iron overload, a pint of blood may be drawn once or twice a week. Once iron levels are restored to normal, the patient enters the maintenance phase of treatment, which means he or she donates a pint of blood every two or four months, possibly more often. If treatment begins at a relatively early stage, there's a good chance no organs will be damaged and no complications such as arthritis will occur. You'll also be advised to watch your diet and avoid high-iron foods such as red meat.


National Institutes of Health

The Hemochromatosis Information Center

Information Center for Sickle Cell and Thalassemic Disorders