Does Stress Make Arthritis Worse?

Summit physician assistant Kathryn Roggow, MHA, MPAS, PA-C, explores the connection between stress and arthritis.

It’s a scenario familiar to many people who suffer from the pain, stiffness, and swelling of arthritis. You’re going through a stressful time — at work, at home, or both — and on top of everything else, you find yourself experiencing a flare-up in your arthritis symptoms. Does stress make arthritis worse?

In a word, yes, according to Summit physician assistant Kathryn Roggow, MHA, MPAS, PA-C. “Stress is a vicious cycle, perpetuating chronic pain, including arthritis pain, and making your experience of suffering worse as well. After the initial onset of pain, your body remembers the event that triggered the pain in order to avoid that triggering event in the future. But creating that memory actually creates a faster neural pathway to experiencing that pain,” she said.

The connection between stress and arthritis

That means that although your body is trying to protect you, the result is that experiencing that trigger — stress, in this case — primes your brain to expect pain. That creates a hypersensitivity to the pain itself. It’s an amazing example of the mind-body connection at work. Studies have shown that people with chronic pain have a lower pain tolerance, in part because of the brain becoming wired, over time, to be hypersensitive to pain.

In addition, many of the symptoms of arthritis — reduced range of motion and trouble sleeping, for example — work to reduce your emotional resilience. “That means you’re less able to handle the stressors coming in, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Kate said.

Most people with arthritis know that there is a wide range of traditional, nonsurgical treatments to address arthritis symptoms. For severe cases, surgical treatments can be considered. But one thing many people with arthritis don’t know is that taking steps to reduce stress can be a vitally important part of your overall approach to fighting back against arthritis.

Stress-reduction for arthritis sufferers

Here are some tips to help you reduce stress — and decrease your arthritis symptoms at the same time:

  • Learn what your stressful triggers are — “Developing self-awareness about the stresses you’re experiencing is key,” Kate said. One good way to do this is by journaling to track your experiences and your symptoms. This will help you see patterns over time.
  • Develop your awareness of the mind-body-spirit connection — A few examples of ways to do this are yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, massage, and acupuncture.
  • Take good care of yourself — Getting a good night’s sleep each night, eating well, and engaging in healthy exercise that includes a variety of motion types can all help. “Also, listen to your body, allowing it to rest when it needs to,” Kate said.
  • Cut back on harmful habits — Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are both stressors. “They’re not helpful as coping mechanisms in the long run, and they can actually make stress worse,” Kate said. Talk with your provider for help quitting smoking and limiting alcohol use.
  • Take a look online for other great stress reduction tips.

When to seek treatment for your arthritis

Arthritis doesn’t have to spell the end of an active life. If you are experiencing worrisome symptoms or persistent pain, including stress-related arthritis flare-ups, the renowned arthritis specialists at Summit Orthopedics can help. We work with you to confirm a diagnosis and develop an appropriate conservative treatment plan. If nonsurgical treatments fail to support your lifestyle goals, fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeons will consult with you and discuss appropriate surgical options. Summit is home to innovative joint replacement options. Our Vadnais Heights Surgery Center is one of a select few nationally to receive The Joint Commission’s Advanced Certification for Total Hip and Total Knee Replacement.

Start your journey to healthier joints. Find your arthritis expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNPlymouth, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota.

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