Psoriatic Arthritis in Women

What special concerns and risks do women face?

Women and men are equally affected by psoriatic arthritis but differ significantly in the way they respond to the disease. Not only do women have specific vulnerabilities to developing the disease, but they also tend to have poorer outcomes. Scientists are not entirely sure why this is and, to date, have offered few guidelines on how to better manage the disease in women.

Symptoms

Psoriatic arthritis belongs to a class of diseases known as spondyloarthropathies, the predominant features of which include inflammation and joint pain. With respect to psoriatic arthritis specifically, the location of the joint involvement varies significantly by sex. Comparatively speaking:

  • Women are more likely to develop peripheral polyarticular disease, meaning arthritis in the joints of the extremities. Most of the involvement will be in the hands, wrist, feet, and ankles but can also develop in the knees, elbows, and hips.
  • Men are more likely to develop axial disease, meaning the development of arthritis in and around the spine. Also known as psoriatic spondylitis, the disease can cause stiffness from the neck to the tailbone but most commonly affects the lower (lumbar) spine.

Disease Progression

While men with psoriatic arthritis tend to sustain greater joint damage on X-ray, women will generally have worse symptoms overall. This is evidenced in part by a 2015 study in the Journal of Rheumatology in which investigators monitored 72 men and women with psoriatic arthritis for a period of five years. What they found was that:

  • Men tend to show evidence of joint damage on X-ray far earlier than women.
  • Women had a higher number of affected joints.
  • Women have more severe symptoms, including pain, fatigue, and dactylitis (swollen, sausage-shaped fingers or toes).
  • Women have lower quality-of-life scores.
  • Women have greater work disability.
  • Men have a better response to treatment and better chances of disease remission.

While pain perception may play a role in these differences given the subjectivity of some of the tests, the physiological expression of the disease was clearly demarcated between sexes. Further research is needed to determine if and how hormones, genes, and other factors contribute to these differences.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy not only affects how you treat and manage psoriatic arthritis but also influences your risk of disease onset and flares. According to a 2015 study in the Annals of Brazilian Dermatology:

  • Pregnancy can influence the severity of the disease, causing a worsening of symptoms in one out of four women.
  • Between 40 percent and 90 percent of women will experience a worsening of symptoms in the postpartum period following delivery.
  • Pregnancy can often be the factor the triggers the onset of psoriatic arthritis, affecting between 30 percent to 40 percent of women.
  • Changes in treatment are often required during pregnancy, including the avoidance of drugs like methotrexate, cyclosporine, acitretin, and Stelara (ustekinumab).

There is even evidence that psoriatic arthritis can directly or indirectly increase the risk of gestational diabetes and postpartum depression.

Smoking and Alcohol

Both smoking and alcohol are risk factors for psoriatic arthritis. Although there has been little research to assess the difference in risk between men and women, several high-quality studies have been able to characterize the risk in women specifically.

This includes a 2011 study in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases which reviewed the medical histories of 84,874 female nurses in the United States. According to the study, former smokers had a 50 percent greater risk of developing psoriatic arthritis compared to non-smokers, while current smokers had no less than a three-fold increased risk of the disease.

Similarly, a 2016 study in the Journal of Rheumatology revealed that excessive alcohol use was associated with a higher risk of psoriatic arthritis in American women.

According to the study, drinking 15.0 to 29.9 grams of alcohol per day (roughly one and a half to three drinks) increased the risk of psoriatic arthritis by 43 percent, while drinking more than 30 grams increased the risk by over 400 percent.

Other Risk Factors

Other risk factors have been identified in recent years that either increase the risk of psoriatic arthritis in women or give rise to comorbid (co-occurring) conditions. Among some of the key findings:

Emotional Impact

A report from the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF) strongly suggests that the emotional and social impact of psoriatic arthritis is greater in women than in men. If you are a woman living with psoriatic arthritis, concerns about your appearance and how others perceive you can take a toll on your self-confidence and interpersonal relationships.

Moreover, the stress associated with the disease can significantly undermine your mental health, increasing the risk of alcohol abuse, depression, weight gain, and smoking. The NPF report suggests that no less than 60 percent of women with psoriatic disease report a diminished quality of life as a result of chronic or recurrent symptoms.

If you are depressed or are unable to cope, it is important to speak with your doctor and seek help from a mental health professional. Doing so may not only improve your state of mind but reduce your risk of flares.

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