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Lots of studies have suggested that drinking alcohol - in moderation, of course - can bestow certain health benefits, most notably a reduced risk of heart disease.

Now, new research indicates it may also lessen the pain and disability of rheumatoid arthritis. The results are based on 873 rheumatoid arthritis patients who completed questionnaires about their drinking habits and underwent a series of medical tests.

"We found that the severity of the arthritis diminished as the frequency of alcohol consumption increased," said one of study authors, James Maxwell of the University of Sheffield in Britain.

In particular, "X-rays showed there was less damage to joints, blood tests showed lower levels of inflammation and there was less joint pain, swelling and disability."

The study, published this week in the journal Rheumatology, marks the first time that the frequency of alcohol consumption has been linked to the severity of this disease.

Dr. Maxwell cautioned that the findings must be confirmed by additional studies. He also emphasized that the participants did not drink to excess. The most frequent drinkers consumed alcohol about 10 days a month.

Even so, the results seem to make sense based on what is already known about rheumatoid arthritis and the effects of alcohol.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disorder in which the body's disease-fighting immune system goes wonky and starts attacking the joints.

Over time, the chronic inflammation can disfigure joints, leading to permanent disability.

Dr. Maxwell noted that there is some evidence to suggest that alcohol can suppress the immune system. "It's possible that the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of alcohol may play a role in reducing the severity of symptoms," he said.

Physicians are normally reluctant to recommend alcohol to their patients because too much booze can be extremely destructive to mind and body. And Dr. Maxwell shares those concerns. Still, he says, "small amounts of alcohol probably won't do them any harm and it may even help their joints a little."

But what's really significant about this new study is that it may give researchers fresh insights into the workings of the immune system and that could help them develop more effective treatments for the debilitating disease, said Dr. Maxwell.