Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease manifested by swollen and painful joints, bone erosion and functional impairment. The joint lesions are characterised by infiltration of T lymphocytes, macrophages and B lymphocytes into the synovium and by synovial inflammation involving eicosanoids, cytokines and matrix metalloproteinases.

In relation to inflammatory processes, the main fatty acids of interest are the n-6 PUFA arachidonic acid, which is the precursor of inflammatory eicosanoids such as PGE2 and leukotriene B4, and the n-3 PUFA EPA and DHA, which are found in oily fish and fish oils. Eicosanoids derived from the n-6 PUFA arachidonic acid play a role in RA, and the efficacy of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in RA indicates the importance of pro-inflammatory cyclooxygenase pathway products of arachidonic acid in the pathophysiology of the disease.

EPA and DHA inhibit arachidonic acid metabolism to inflammatory eicosanoids. EPA also gives rise to eicosanoid mediators that are less inflammatory than those produced from arachidonic acid and both EPA and DHA give rise to resolvins that are anti-inflammatory and inflammation resolving.

In addition to modifying the lipid mediator profile, n-3 PUFA exert effects on other aspects of immunity relevant to RA such as antigen presentation, T-cell reactivity and inflammatory cytokine production. Fish oil has been shown to slow the development of arthritis in an animal model and to reduce disease severity.

Randomised clinical trials have demonstrated a range of clinical benefits in patients with RA that include reducing pain, duration of morning stiffness and use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.