Rheumatoid Arthritis & Pregnancy

Dr. Kimme Hyrich, MD PhD FRCPC, Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit, University of Manchester &
Professor Alan Silman MSc MD FRCP FMedSci, Director of Research Strategy and Policy,
Arthritis Research UK
Original article: 23/09/2004
Reviewed: 26/06/2013
Next review due: 26/06/2016
 

Getting pregnant

This guide aims to cover some of the common concerns that women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may have over various pregnancy issues from conception, controlling disease during pregnancy through to the birth and breastfeeding. It is important to remember that while RA may affect your pregnancy and its outcome, pregnancy itself will also affect your RA. In the past there were concerns that RA might affect the ability to conceive, but if the disease is well controlled, most women with RA can have an enjoyable and successful pregnancy.

As with any normal pregnancy, planning ahead is important and you should discuss your plans as early as possible with your rheumatologist. Following a healthy lifestyle will increase your chances of conceiving and reduce potential problems during pregnancy. The risk of foetal loss or genetic abnormalities for women with RA is not significantly greater than for any other pregnant women. All women who are pregnant or planning a baby should take folic acid supplements (0.4mg/day) to decrease the risk of spina bifida and this can be especially important if you have been treated with drugs such as methotrexate.

Some of the drugs used to treat RA can be maintained while trying to conceive but several should be avoided as they are known to affect fertility. Also some drugs may have to be stopped for a while before trying to conceive to ensure they are eliminated from the body, such as leflunomide which can remain in body for up to 2 years. A number of drugs (for example methotrexate, sulphasalazine and azathioprine) can also reduce sperm count so it is also important for men with RA to consult their GP/rheumatologist before trying for a baby.

RA during pregnancy

Many women, up to 75%, find that the pain and swelling associated with RA is much improved during pregnancy, usually in the second trimester (14-27 weeks) and this is probably due to the normal hormonal changes in pregnancy. This temporary remission normally continues throughout the course of the pregnancy. During the later stages of pregnancy, swelling, backaches and tiredness are common for many women regardless of their RA status. It is important that these normal pregnancy symptoms are not mistaken for RA problems.

Use of drugs in pregnancy

Most drugs are labelled ‘not for use in pregnancy’ as many are not tested in pregnant women so it is difficult to guarantee safety especially with the newer drugs where the number of pregnancies studied is still low. In addition any animal studies that may have been carried out may not be applicable to humans. Although you may be concerned about the possible harmful effects of taking RA drugs while pregnant, it is important to remember that uncontrolled arthritis during pregnancy can also have adverse effects on your baby such as low birth weight.

As arthritis will vary between individuals it is always advisable to speak to your GP/rheumatologist about your situation and always to consult him/her before you stop any drugs. Some of the concerns about the common drugs used to treat RA are listed below.

Non Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

These include naproxen, ibuprofen etc. and are not known to cause birth defects. However they may reduce the amount of amniotic fluid surrounding your baby and cause kidney problems. They have also been linked to an early closure of a blood vessel (ductus arteriosus) in the baby’s heart and for this reason you may be advised to stop or reduce these drugs 6-8 weeks before your due date. High doses of these drugs have also been linked to prolonged labours and excess bleeding during birth and again you may be advised to discontinue these drugs before the birth to avoid these problems.

Corticosteroids

Low to moderate doses of these can be safely used during pregnancy and are commonly used in normal pregnant women to mature the lungs of babies who may be born prematurely. However they have also been linked to premature rupture of membranes, increased risk of hypertension and increased risk of developing gestational diabetes (where blood sugar levels are too high). If you have been using steroids for a long time it is important to not stop them when you discover you are pregnant and instead consult with your GP/rheumatologist. It may be necessary to receive a ‘stress dose’ when the baby is born to reduce the flare-up of RA activity.

Hydroxychloroquine

This drug is commonly used to prevent malaria and there are no known increased risks of abnormalities in babies and it is not thought to affect your fertility.

Sulphasalazine

This drug has been used to control RA successfully in pregnancy although it has been linked to temporary infertility in men.

Methotrexate

This drug is best avoided during conception, pregnancy and breastfeeding because of harmful effects on eggs and sperm. It is associated with an increased risk of birth defects such as spina bifida and is also linked to an increased risk of miscarriage. It is advisable to stop taking this drug for at least three months before trying to conceive. Your folate levels may be reduced if you have been on this drug so taking folic acid supplements is important.

Biologic drugs

There are now many different biologic drugs available to treat arthritis including the anti-TNF drugs (etanercept, infliximab, adalimumab, certolizumab pegol and golimumab) as well as other biologic drugs such as tocilizumab, abatacept and rituximab. A recent study has shown that women who became pregnant while on anti-TNF agents did not suffer any increased risk to themselves or their baby, although most of these women stopped their medication once they realised they were pregnant.  The information on the effects of some of the newer drugs on pregnancy and fertility are largely unknown. Therefore, without long-term studies the regular use of biologic agents in pregnancy cannot be recommended.

Delivery and After

For many women with RA, labour is much the same as for any other normal pregnant woman. However there may be problems if your arthritis affects the hips or mobility and it is important to discuss any concerns with your midwife/consultant before the birth. There is some evidence that suggests that women with RA have a slightly increased risk of having a premature baby, are at an increased risk of having a caesarean section and may face a longer stay in hospital.

Many women find that their RA returns or flares up six weeks after delivery (because of hormone excesses in pregnancy returning to normal) though this normally returns to pre-pregnancy levels after the flare period. Coping with a newborn baby can be tiring for all mothers and this may be more so for women with RA because of the additional worries of RA flaring up. It is important to have sufficient support and help during this period, from those around you as well as your GP/rheumatologist. Many women with RA will be anxious that their RA will be passed to their child; fortunately for most women the risk of their child developing RA is low.

Breast-feeding

There is no reason why you won’t be able to breast-feed your baby and even if it is only for a few weeks it is a healthy start to life. However as some drugs can pass through into the breast milk it is important to discuss which drugs are best to take with your GP/rheumatologist. It is also important to remember that in the long-term it may be better for you to take drugs to control your RA than not take them in order to breast-feed. More specific information on drugs while breast-feeding is available elsewhere on this website.

As arthritis will vary between individuals the most important thing is to plan ahead and discuss the pros and cons of drugs for your own situation with your GP/rheumatologist in order to achieve a happy and healthy pregnancy. However, if you do find that you have unexpectedly become pregnant while taking drugs for your arthritis, don’t panic and contact your GP/rheumatologist as soon as possible.

Further reading:

Arthritis Research UK (ARUK) booklet: Pregnancy and arthritis
Disabled Parents Network
Disability, Pregnancy and Parenthood International

References available on request


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