Weight and Arthritis

It probably comes as no surprise that being overweight aggravates arthritis. Certainly weight bearing joints such as the low back, hips, and knees are aggravated by excess weight.  However, all joints including upper body joints are also impacted by fat. Fat stimulates omega 6 ( contained in beef and fatty foods).  Omega 6 is an inflammatory mediator and since inflammation is at the core of arthritis and cardiovascular diseases,..,..well, you can figure out the rest.  For those reasons among others, we advocate diets high in omega 3s such as fruits, vegetables, fish, and tree nuts like walnuts and almonds.  This diet is the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet which has been critically tested and reported this year in the New England Journal of Medicine.

For years, low fat diets had been popular.  In addition to the Mediterranean type diets, we  try to get our patients to avoid sugar as much as possible. Refined sugar stimulates insulin which alters metabolism by storing fat and making us hungry.  Low fat diets usually translate into high carb diets and in patients who are insulin resistant, weight gain is even more of a problem.  Simple things like avoiding sugary beverages (i.e. Coke and Pepsi) need to be done.  Currently, we are trying to get the hospital cafeteria to get rid of these drinks.  We’ll let you know if we succeed.

The value of exercise seems fairly obvious, but there are complications in our understanding.  Average exercise burns about 400 calories an hour- that is about the same as a single patty hamburger.  Unless you are exercising several hours a day, it becomes clear that you still need to control intake and avoid a lot of processed foods. Unfortunately, food manufacturers employ food chemists who are constantly searching for foods with the right amount of sugar, fat and salt to stimulate the sugar receptors in your brain to addict you. They work on the right “mouth feel” and smell.  It takes a lot of discipline to walk past a Cinnabun store at the airport.  Nevertheless, exercise is still important for you.  Both weight lifting activities as well as aerobic exercise-enough to make you perspire can help burn some of that midriff.  We can point you in the right direction for that.

One of the latest advances in our understanding of what makes some people fat relates to our gut bacteria.  Our bodies mostly live in harmony with billions of bacteria in our gut that help digest food.  There are at least 2 populations of bacteria.  One set of bacteria can cause fattening and the other is associated with leanness.  So does that mean we should have skinny bacteria transplanted into our guts?  Maybe, but there is one significant catch.  The skinny bacteria work only with the right diet.  According to Jeffrey Gordon, director of the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at Washington University in St. Louis,  the microbes associated with leanness only succeed with a diet high in fruits, vegetables and low in saturated fats.  So you still have to eat right.

Vasculitis

When blood vessels become inflamed for any reason, it  is called vasculitis. The diagnosis is usually insufficient by itself. As rheumatologists, we have to determine which size vessels are involved and what part of the body in addition to blood vessels are involved as it makes a considerable difference in diagnosis and treatment. For example, when large blood vessels are involved, it could be giant cell or temporal arteritis. Typically patients may have scalp tenderness and difficulty chewing. One of the blood test, a sedimentation rate is typically but not always elevated. If the diagnosis is considered at all likely, corticosteroids need to be started soon and the temporal arteries need to be biopsied by a surgeon. Time is of the essence in this diagnosis as blindness can rarely be a consequence. In addition sometimes the aorta may be involved with this disease and appropriate imaging studies can help determine the diagnosis.

Another type of vasculitis we see less commonly used to be called Wegener’s granulomatosis. It is now called granulomatosis with polyangiitis (quite a mouthful) after it was discovered it Wegener was a Nazi. In this disease, patients may initially have sinus infections or cellulitis around their eyes. Subsequently they may develop pneumonia and cough up blood. Joints can be involved and kidney involvement can also be severe. Making the diagnosis can be very difficult. Blood studies (i.e. ANCA) can help as can imaging studies of the sinuses and chest. Ultimately biopsies are often necessary. Treatment entails high dose corticosteroids and Cytoxan. More recently we have had significant success with Rituxan, a drug we “borrowed” from the hematologists. It was originally used for a type of lymphoma. We have found it to be quite successful in rheumatoid arthritis and now we know it can make a considerable difference in stopping the progression and even reversing much of the disease process of granulomatosis with polyangiitis.

The most common type of vascultis involves small blood vessels and can be caused by medications.  Usually stopping the offending medicine is sufficient although corticosteroids may also be needed.  Other diseases involving small blood vessels include Henoch-Schonlein purpura which may also present with abdominal pain, blood in the urine and blotchy rashes on the legs.  Steroids are often used in these cases as well.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common arthritis that we all get as we age. Unfortunately, many people can develop it when they are younger. Typically trauma can be a major factor in causing cartilage to wear down in any part of the body. Loss of cartilage particularly in a weight-bearing joint such as the low back, hip or knee will be most painful. Wear and tear clearly play a role but does not explain why we see osteoarthritis in the cervical spine, hands and shoulders. We do not know all the factors involved in causing cartilage to deteriorate but there are some interesting drugs currently in research that may help prevent it.

Low back pain is most commonly associated with osteoarthritis and virtually everybody gets it sooner or later. X-rays are usually not that helpful unless the pain is particularly severe with radiation down one leg or pain that keeps a person up during the night. Compression fractures of the spine can be confused with osteoarthritis but typically compression fractures are more localized and more acute in onset. MRIs generally do not add much but show the surgeon or the anesthesiologist doing an epidural where the problem is. Fortunately very few people need back surgery for osteoarthritis and its associated problem of spinal stenosis. In spinal stenosis, bone spurs grow around the exiting nerve roots or the spinal cord causing pressure on the nerve which can be painful as well as cause weakness in the legs.

For most people, therapy including muscle strengthening exercises for the back and intermittent use of either muscle relaxers or anti-inflammatory drugs can be helpful. The role of manipulation is difficult to quantify but may be helpful in some instances as well.

Occasional injections of corticosteroids or  visco-supplementation drugs such as Synvisc or Orthovisc can be helpful for the knee and can delay surgery. Muscle strengthening exercises and weight reduction are part of the treatment as well. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication can be helpful but cannot be used in people who have pre-existing kidney disease or a history of peptic ulcers or true aspirin allergies.

There are now 1 million total hips and joints implanted every year in the United States and when all else fails, joint replacement in the appropriate patient can make a significant difference.

The role of the rheumatologist is to guide patients through the tortuous course of therapeutic options to get appropriate relief.

Lupus

Systemic lupus erythematosus is the classic autoimmune disease. The cause is still unknown. Genetic factors play a significant role. For reasons not yet understood, the immune system in lupus patients perceives some of the body as being foreign and attempts to reject it. The immune system is stimulated which reacts against many parts of the body including the lining of joints, heart and lungs. Skin is often involved as well as parts of the central nervous system. Kidney involvement can be severe but fortunately strong medications are available to help prevent serious deterioration which would otherwise happen.

Anyone can be affected with lupus although it is typically more common in African American women of childbearing age. The presentation can be mysterious as lupus can involve so many different parts of the body. Patients may have unexplained fevers or rashes. They may have easy bruising with low platelet counts (clotting factors). They can have joint inflammation which may look like rheumatoid arthritis or chest pain which could masquerade as a heart attack. As in so many diseases, having a high index of suspicion leads to getting the right blood tests and considering lupus as a possibility.

Lupus often requires physicians from different specialties to be involved. Nephrologists need to be following the kidney involvement. Sometimes early intervention prevents lupus kidney disease from advancing. On the other hand, we have patients who have received kidney transplants and are doing generally well.

Medications used for lupus include prednisone. This drug is a double-edged sword as it can be lifesaving but at the same time can cause significant side effects including weight gain, diabetes, and compression fractures. Other drugs used more for  skin and joint involvement include Plaquenil. For severe kidney involvement, drugs such as CellCept and Cytoxan can be quite helpful. In the last few years, a new intravenous drug ,Benlysta , was approved by the FDA. This was the first new drug approved for lupus in 50 years and appears to be more helpful in the non-kidney aspects of lupus. The intention is that all these drugs may allow us to get away with a lower level of prednisone.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis has become the most common medical problem that we treat. Although it is more common in women, men over the age of 65 can develop osteoporosis at almost the same rate as women. Risk factors include use of corticosteroids, smoking, lack of exercise,  being underweight (yes, you can actually be too thin!) inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake and a history of previous fractures. Blood tests tend to not be too reliable.  We depend on DEXA bone density tests and they also have their shortcomings. However, they are relatively inexpensive and have less radiation than a chest  xray.

The benefits and risks of the available medicines for osteoporosis are often in the news.  Most of the medications slow down the breakdown of old bone and are effective.  Long term use have potential hazards  (i.e. mid-femur fractures) and we currently limit treatment with any one of these drugs to 5 years. On the other hand, there is ample data to indicate the bisphosphonates prevent many more fractures than they cause.  Alternative medications include denosumab (Prolia) which is given as an injection every 6 months.  It also works by slowing down the breakdown of old bone.  Forteo is currently the only drug which builds new bone and is given as a daily injection for 2 years.  It cannot be given to patients who have had previous radiation therapy for cancer.  Newer drugs are a few years from being available.

Supplemental calcium  (i.e. Citracal, Caltrate)for osteoporosis is somewhat controversial. Previous recommendations were to take 1000-1500 mg/day.  There have been recent studies which imply that too much supplemental calcium intake besides increasing the risk of kidney stones may be a cardiac risk.  However, these studies have some flaws and opinions may change  as we learn more.  Foods that are high in calcium such as dairy products, anchovies, and kale are a better choice.

Gout treatment

Gout, once considered the disease of the rich as they overconsumed foie gras washed down with port, is a commonly seen rheumatologic problem today.  Any joint can be involved in addition to the classic big toe pain in the middle of the night.  There are genetic factors, but the most common risk factors are diuretics (which raise levels of uric acid).  Other risk factors include alcohol, beef, organ meat and sometimes shellfish. Diagnosis often requires aspirating fluid from a joint to see if urate crystals are present. It takes an experienced doctor to find these crystals under a polarizing microscope.  Having an elevated uric acid by itself does not necessarily make the diagnosis.

Treatment requires treating the acute inflammation either with an injection of cortisone, prednisone or an anti-flammatory medication by mouth. Colchicine has been used for hundreds of years but unfortunately the cost of it went dramatically up when the FDA unfortunately gave exclusive rights to its production to one company.  After the inflammation subsides, decisions need to be made whether or not long term therapy is indicated to prevent bone destruction and kidney stones.  These drugs include allopurinol or febuxistat (Uloric). One size does not fit all and the timing and dosage of these medications need individual tailoring.  Newer drugs are being developed as well for more severe types of gout.

Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis remains a difficult disease to treat but new medications are making significant inroads into what used to be a crippling illness for almost everyone with this diagnosis.  It has been 20 years since the advent of the biologic drugs starting with Enbrel and Remicaide.  There are now over 9 drugs which can help stop the disease and prevent further bone destruction as seen on xray.  A new oral medication has also been released this year and we are still sorting out the order of which medications work best for which aspect of rheumatoid arthritis as well as psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis.  In addition, off label studies with these drugs show promise for other diseases such as sarcoid, reactive arthritis, polymyositis among others.  Side effects include infection and anyone who has seen these adds on television know that the list is long but in reality, infection in 3-4% of patients is the major issue we carefully watch for. Nevertheless, there is not much more gratification than seeing someone who can hardly move before starting these medications regain their ability to work and enjoy life.