Doctors have documented hundreds of patients with what they call "Middle east pain syndrome", a newly identified disease that mimics rheumatoid arthritis and may have some link to environmental pollution.
As reported in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers in Cairo explain that 400 patients came to hospitals in Egypt and Saudi Arabia between November 2014 to December 2019 who had previously been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis – a long-term condition that causes pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. After a second look at these patients, they found that they didn't quite fit the criteria for rheumatoid arthritis. They did, however, meet the diagnosis for fibromyalgia syndrome, another long-term condition that causes pain all over the body and muscle stiffness. Most peculiarly, X-rays revealed that many of the patients had spur-like growths growing on some of their bones. On top of this, the patients had notable vitamin D deficiencies.
So, what’s the link to pollution? Well, the link is convoluted and somewhat hazy, but the researchers believe it's all to do with the toxic heavy metal cadmium and vitamin D.
The Middle East has extremely high levels of vitamin D deficiency, which is surprising when you consider that the sun-drenched region has high levels of UV rays that are necessary for vitamin D3 production in humans.
The study cites previous research that shows the vitamin D deficiency in the Middle East is likely linked to heavy metal pollution, namely cadmium and lead (although cultural practices, diet, and genetics may also play a role). There’s not heaps of evidence about cadmium pollution in the Middle East, but some studies suggest that there are significant levels of the toxic heavy metal in certain foods from the region, especially rice. It’s noteworthy that cadmium builds up in the kidney, an organ that plays an important role in making vitamin D useful to the body.
The researchers argue that the vitamin D deficiency led to many of the patients developing secondary hyperparathyroidism (SHPT), a condition where the parathyroid glands secrete too much parathyroid hormone (PTH). Up to 75 percent of these patients were found to have abnormally high levels of PTH. In turn, vitamin D3 deficiency and SHPT have been linked to fibromyalgia syndrome, which causes painful joints.
The condition was named Middle East Pain Syndrome simply because all patients were from the Middle East. However, just like Lyme Disease or West Nile virus, the proposed disease isn’t necessarily confined by geography and could potentially be found in any person with vitamin D deficiencies and exposure to heavy metal pollutants.
"Cadmium pollution must be considered as one of the new millennium big challenges that should be treated efficiently, to prevent many economically affecting health hazards," the study concludes.