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What Is Caplan's Syndrome?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Caplan’s syndrome defines scarring of the lungs caused by exposure to silica, coal mine dust, or asbestos. It typically occurs in patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis who inhaled these particles in the workplace. Caplan’s syndrome causes nodules to form in the lungs that may restrict breathing. No cure exists for the disease, but doctors usually treat rheumatoid arthritis symptoms to provide relief from pain.

Improved regulations to protect the health of coal mine workers and people who work in other occupations where dust is present led to a decrease in the number of patients diagnosed with Caplan’s syndrome. In some regions, the condition is now rare because of safeguards imposed by government health agencies. It still poses a risk in some countries where mining operations lack safety measures.

Symptoms of Caplan’s syndrome might include trouble breathing, a persistent cough, and a wheezing sound in the chest. Most patients suffering from the disease also show symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, marked by painful, swollen joints, especially after a period of inactivity. The disease can occur without rheumatoid arthritis, but patients with the joint disease face higher risks after exposure to harmful dust.

Also called coal workers' pneumoconiosis, the disorder might also appear in workers exposed to asbestos dust or silica. Asbestos represents a common, naturally occurring mineral used in construction materials, such as insulation, floor tiles, and wallboard, before it was banned in some areas. It also might cause a form of lung cancer if exposed fibers in the air are inhaled.

Silica is found primarily in rock and sand, which appears in large quantities in quartz. Rheumatoid lung silicosis defines Caplan’s syndrome caused by breathing silica dust, which is a prominent substance in glass. The type of the illness depends upon the length of exposure and the amount of dust inhaled. This form of the disorder might appear in patients who worked in the sand and gravel industry, mining, or sandblasting operations.

Caplan’s syndrome might lead to numerous growths in the lung if scarring becomes severe. Patients also face a higher risk of developing tuberculosis. Only rarely does the condition lead to an inability to function, but it usually causes some breathing limitations. Doctors typically advise patients to stop working in dust-producing environments and to stop smoking if they use tobacco. Smoking tends to aggravate symptoms of Caplan’s syndrome.

Rheumatoid arthritis represents an autoimmune disease when the immune system malfunctions and begins attacking healthy tissue in the joints. Inflammation and swelling typically lead to pain and limited motion in the affected joints. Bouts of inflammation might flare up frequently or only on occasion. One characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis involves swelling of the same joints on both sides of the body. Treatment typically includes steroids to reduce inflammation.

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