Ah, stress. For many of us, it plays a much more significant role in our lives than we would like, and can be challenging to manage. Stress can have profound effects on our sleep, eating habits, and memory, and if not controlled, can have very damaging long-term effects on our mental and physical health. In recent years, a potential link has been established between stress and the onset or worsening of arthritis symptoms (particularly rheumatoid arthritis). Although the number of arthritis pain relief options are increasing, it’s possible that a better understanding of the link between arthritis and stress could increase the options for managing and treating rheumatoid arthritis.
Can stress cause arthritis?
Astonishingly, research has shown that stressful experiences may actually contribute to your chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis. In a 2009 study, researchers examined data from over 15,000 individuals who had reported adverse childhood experiences – thought to be a good measure of stressful stimuli. Individuals who reported two or more of these experiences (such as physical or emotional abuse, witnessing substance abuse or parental divorce) had twice the risk of developing rheumatic disease compared to individuals with no reported childhood trauma. This suggests that stressful situations could play a role in whether or not an individual goes on to develop arthritis later in life.
What about individuals who already have arthritis?
As well as a potential role for stress causing arthritis, there’s also research to suggest that stress can worsen the arthritis of those already suffering from the disease. If you have rheumatoid arthritis and also experience psychological stress, your arthritis symptoms may worsen. One of the best examples of this is a 2013 study from the University of Nebraska, which analyzed around 1,500 US veterans with rheumatoid arthritis. Veterans who also had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reported more pain, tender joints, and decreased joint movement compared to veterans who had arthritis, but no PTSD. This suggests that for individuals who already have arthritis, experiencing stress can worsen their condition and result in greater pain and discomfort.
Does low-level stress play a role in arthritis?
In most cases, research dissecting the role of stress on arthritis has focused on extremely stressful and long-term stimuli – such as PTSD or childhood trauma. For many of us, our stress comes in (thankfully) less severe doses – maybe in the form of a challenging day at work, having too much on our plate, or trying to parallel park on a busy street. We know that long-term stress and short-term stress operate through different mechanisms, with short-term stress causing an adrenaline release that increases our heart rate and causes us to sweat, among other things. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research assessing the effects of acute, short-term stress on arthritis pain to date.
How does stress affect our joints?
While the relationship between stress and arthritis isn’t completely understood yet, it appears that hormones play a large role. Prolonged feelings of stress and anxiety result in the release of so-called “stress hormones” such as cortisol, and elements of the immune system known as cytokines. Both cortisol and cytokines have been linked with an increase in inflammation, which could explain the worsening of symptoms that arthritis sufferers experience as a result of stress. Increased inflammation at a joint can increase the amount of pain and swelling, which makes things much more uncomfortable if you’re already experiencing arthritis in that joint.
Reducing stress to improve arthritis symptoms
Reducing the amount of stress in our lives is something we should always be striving for, as stress is detrimental to both our physical and mental health. However, it may be something that arthritis sufferers want to pay particular attention to, as it could reduce the severity of their symptoms. Here are some simple tactics that may help to manage the stress you experience on a daily basis.
- Prioritize exercise. For arthritis sufferers, waking up and going for a run might not be an option, but there are plenty of other ways to use exercise to reduce stress. Swimming and yoga are great forms of exercise that are easy on the joints, and have numerous physical and mental benefits
- Reassess your lifestyle. If you can feel the stress building up, try to make some lifestyle changes to help you cope. For example, don’t take on an extra project at work – instead treat yourself to a three-day weekend. It will increase your mental and physical health in the long run, as well as your productivity at work.
- Explore natural remedies. There are numerous natural stress-relieving remedies such as herbal teas and CBD treatments that have shown promise in reducing stress and anxiety for certain individuals. What’s more, CBD treatments may also be able to relieve some of the pain associated with arthritis.
If you suffer from arthritis, make sure you take time to manage the stress in your life – it could help to reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life.