Caffeine is a stimulant that occurs naturally in tea and cocoa and is added in generous amounts to many beverages for the sole purpose of providing bursts of energy and staving off fatigue. Researchers have been trying to understand the effects of caffeine for decades. While they have made some interesting discoveries regarding caffeine's link to painful joint diseases, indicating at least some effect on arthritis, there's no certainty that caffeine can prevent onset.
Arthritis is the inflammation of one or more joints. Symptoms include pain, swelling and stiffness. Types of arthritis range from those that occur commonly with age to conditions influenced by heredity. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation mostly in small joints, like those in the hands and feet. Gout is a type of arthritis caused by uric acid levels that comes on suddenly and severely, causing pain, redness and tenderness, often in the joint of the big toe. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that occurs when cartilage breaks down.
Researchers are finding mixed results in studies that explore the effect of caffeinated and noncaffeinated coffee and tea consumption on rheumatoid arthritis. In a study published in "Arthritis and Rheumatism" in January 2002, study authors from the University of Alabama at Birmingham evaluated whether coffee, tea and caffeine consumption increased the risk for the painful joint disease. They found that those who consumed up to 3 cups of caffeinated tea a day had an increased risk of developing the joint condition compared to those who never drank tea. Volunteers who drank more than 3 cups of decaffeinated coffee were also at increased risk for RA compared to nondrinkers. The authors concluded that while coffee and tea consumption do have an effect on RA, caffeine seems to play little, if any, role in disease onset.
These findings only partially agree with a larger study published one year later in the same journal, which found that neither coffee nor tea nor caffeine had any effect at all on the autoimmune joint disease. This study, published in November 2003, was conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Authors from both studies explain that more work needs to be done to determine whether caffeine or caffeinated beverages influence RA.
Researchers also ruled out caffeine as a culprit in gout onset. The study, published in "Arthritis Care & Research" in June 2007 and led by Hyon K. Choi, M.D., found that regardless of caffeine content, coffee consumption did seem to protect against the condition. In an observational study of people who drank large amounts of coffee daily compared to noncoffee drinkers, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital analyzed uric acid levels in nearly 15,000 men and women. People who drank the most coffee, 4 to 5 cups daily, had lower levels of the arthritis-triggering acid and a smaller chance of gout versus the control group. After also specifically looking at caffeine's role in the disease, the researchers found that coffee alone, rather than caffeine, was associated with lower uric acid levels.
Inflammation is a common thread that runs throughout all types of arthritic conditions. This is where experts tend to believe caffeine does have an effect on the disease. An article in the March 2002 "InFocus" newsletter of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association explained that caffeine worsens symptoms of inflammation associated with arthritis. Researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases found that caffeine interferes with receptors that control inflammation and may hinder function, but it does not affect uric acid levels in connection with gout or interfere with the immune system, which is linked to RA.
If you drink caffeine, talk to your doctor before treating your arthritis pain with painkillers. In 2007, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle found that mixing caffeine and acetaminophen could potentially cause liver damage.