Drinking alcohol can not only ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis it appears to reduce disease severity too, research suggests.
Scientists at the University of Sheffield asked two groups of patients with and without the disease to provide details of their drinking habits.
They found that patients who had drunk alcohol most frequently experienced less joint pain and swelling.
More research is needed to find out why alcohol can have an effect on arthritis symptoms
Experts say this should not be taken as a green light for drinking more.
In the study, 873 patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were compared to 1,004 people who did not have it.
Both groups were asked how often they had drunk alcohol in the month running up to the start of the study.
“It's possible that the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of alcohol may play a role in reducing the severity of symptoms”
End QuoteDr James MaxwellConsultant rheumatologist
Patients completed a detailed questionnaire, had X-rays and blood tests, and a nurse examined their joints.
Dr James Maxwell, consultant rheumatologist and lead author of the study, explained the findings.
"We found that patients who had drunk alcohol most frequently had symptoms that were less severe than those who had never drunk alcohol or only drank it infrequently."
X-rays showed there was less damage to their joints, blood tests showed lower levels of inflammation, and there was less joint pain, swelling and disability in those patients, the researchers found.
They say they do not yet understand why drinking alcohol should reduce the severity of RA, and people's susceptibility to developing it.
Dr Maxwell said: "There is some evidence to show that alcohol suppresses the activity of the immune system, and that this may influence the pathways by which RA develops.
"Once someone has developed RA, it's possible that the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of alcohol may play a role in reducing the severity of symptoms," he added.
The authors say that further research is needed to confirm the results of the study and to investigate how and why alcohol has an effect on rheumatoid arthritis.
Risk and rewards
Previous studies have shown that alcohol may reduce the risk of developing the disease in the first place.
Similarly, in the current study non-drinkers were four times more likely to develop RA than people who drank alcohol on more than 10 days a month.
A spokeswoman for Arthritis Research UK, which co-funded the research, said: "We would not want people with RA to take this research to mean that they should go out and start drinking alcohol frequently and in large amounts as this could be detrimental to their health."
She said some RA treatments, like the immunosuppressant drug methotrexate, could damage the liver when taken with large amounts of alcohol.
The patients in the study did not drink more than the recommended limit of 10 units of alcohol a week.