OBJECTIVE--To assess sensory function in skin overlying the joints of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, in relation to the pain and tenderness which commonly arises in structures not directly involved in the inflammatory process. METHODS--An intradermal injection of capsaicin 0.05 microgram in 10 microliters was made over the wrists and forearms of 40 patients with rheumatoid arthritis and 46 control subjects. Axon reflex vasodilatation was measured using laser Doppler flowmetry. Cholinergic sympathetic function was assessed by measuring axon reflex sweating induced by a single intradermal injection of nicotine 0.5 microgram in 0.1 ml. RESULTS--Capsaicin induced axon reflex vasodilation over the wrists was found to decrease with age in normal subjects (r = -0.62, p < 0.001). In patients with rheumatoid arthritis, capsaicin induced axon reflex vasodilatation was significantly greater over the wrists, but not the forearms, when compared with age matched normal controls (p < 0.01). A minimal correlation between axon reflex vasodilatation and visual analogue pain score was apparent in the rheumatoid group (r = -0.37, p < 0.05). Nicotine induced sweating responses were similar in the rheumatoid and normal groups, and both showed a linear age related decline. CONCLUSIONS--The results show a selective increase of capsaicin induced vasodilatation in skin overlying joints in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. This suggests that the activity of a sub-population of periarticular small sensory fibres is altered, which may explain, at least in part, some of the clinical findings in this disorder.
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