The relationship between rheumatoid arthritis and reproductive function

Deborah Joan del Junco, The University of Texas School of Public Health


There is growing support for the theory that an interaction between the immune and reproductive/endocrine systems underlies the pathogenesis of autoimmune rheumatic diseases. Most of the recent evidence derives from studies of sex hormones and pregnancy in women with systemic lupus. Other than an ameliorative effect of pregnancy, little is known about reproductive factors in relation to rheumatoid arthritis. To elucidate the relationship, a population-based retrospective study was undertaken. Included were 378 female residents of Olmsted County, Minnesota diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis between 1950 and 1982 (cases) and 325 arthritis-free, married female controls matched to the 324 married cases on birth-year, age at first marriage, and duration of Olmsted County residency. Information of reproductive factors was extracted from the medical records system maintained by the Mayo Clinic. Cases had lower fertility rates compared with the female population of Minnesota (rate ratio = 0.86, 95% confidence interval (CI)= 0.80-0.92). Fertility was significantly reduced even prior to the onset of rheumatoid factor positive arthritis. Restricting the comparison to married Olmsted County residents did not alter the results. Further adjustments for time not at risk of conception using survival analysis and proportional hazards modeling only intensified the fertility reduction in the married cases compared with controls. Nulligravidity was more common among cases than controls (odds ratio = 3.16, CI = 1.61-6.20). Independent of fertility, pregnancy had a protective effect against rheumatoid arthritis (odds ratio = 0.31, CI = 0.11-0.89), which was dramatically reversed in the 12 months postpartum (odds ratio = 4.67, CI = 1.50-14.47). Cases were younger at menopause than controls (p $<$ 0.01). Small but statistically insignificant associations were observed between rheumatoid arthritis and the following factors: increased frequency of complaints to a physician of infertility; increased frequency of spontaneous abortion, premature birth, and congenital malformations following arthritis onset; and increased prevalence of menopause at arthritis onset. Cases did not differ from controls on age at menarche, duration of pregnancy, or birth weight. The findings provide further support for the involvement of the reproductive/endocrine systems in the pathogenesis of autoimmune rheumatic disease. The search for biological mechanisms should be intensified.

Subject Area

Public health|Pathology

Recommended Citation

del Junco, Deborah Joan, "The relationship between rheumatoid arthritis and reproductive function" (1988). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI9020183.