Doctors have noticed for some time now that many patients suffering from painful joints due to rheumatoid arthritis (RA) also exhibit signs of gum disease. Researchers have previously found that those with gum disease are twice as likely to have RA, although the connection hasn’t been completely understood. However, in a study conducted late last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and other health institutions in the U.S. and Denmark discovered a particular germ that may be the missing link between these two serious health issues. Their findings were published in the Science Translational Medicine journal.
How the RA and Gum Disease Study Was Done
The purpose of this laboratory study was to investigate the possibility that bacteria might be the cause of RA. People afflicted with this autoimmune illness experience inflammation, stiffness and pain in their joints, due to their body’s immune system attacking those joints. Since periodontitis (gum disease) has frequently been seen in people with rheumatoid arthritis, they wanted to see if this bacterial infection might begin the body’s autoimmune inflammation. They looked at blood samples from 100 healthy people and from 109 who had periodontitis. Samples of gingival crevicular fluid (between the teeth and gums) were collected from those with gum disease and those without. They also collected blood and joint fluid from people diagnosed with RA. They analyzed the gum fluid of those with gum disease and noted similarities in the joint fluid and blood samples of people with RA.
The Study’s Findings
It was found that the same inflammatory condition existed in the periodontitis patients’ gum fluid as in the RA arthritis joint fluid. Specifically, in the gum fluid from people with RA, they discovered bacteria known as A. actinomycetemcomitans, which is associated with gum disease. An infection was seen in almost half of RA patients, compared to only 11 percent in those without gum disease or RA.
What Were the Conclusions?
While researchers can’t yet claim a direct cause and effect situation between bacteria in gum disease and rheumatoid arthritis, their findings do suggest the possibility that this germ may cause both conditions. It may be that the bacterium attacks the gums and then causes the joints to swell. Or it’s possible that the reverse is true — that gum disease may result from RA. Further studies are needed to better understand these findings, but rheumatologists believe that this study might be helpful in efforts to prevent and treat RA. In the future, it may be possible to specifically look for this bacteria in those who are at greater risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, such as RA patients’ family members, as a means of early detection and treatment.
While everyone should be mindful of their oral health to avoid the discomfort and expense of tooth decay and gum disease, it is an added incentive to know about the possible links to other diseases, and the important part good dental health plays in your overall health. Keep on brushing (and flossing)!