How Stress Affects Rheumatoid Arthritis

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The stress connection in rheumatoid arthritis is well-known. It's been studied and analyzed, but you probably don't need researchers telling you that stress can make your rheumatoid arthritis more painful. You've most likely experienced that first-hand.

You may find it helpful to dig into the behind-the-scenes reasons for the stress-RA-pain connection. We also have an article on stress relief tips when you have rheumatoid arthritis.

Stress and related wordsStress and Inflammation
You know the fight-or-flight response? That rush of energy when there's an immediate stressor, such as the person driving in front of you braking very, very suddenly?

Fight-or-flight is a hormonal response, and it's part of your endocrine system's response to stress. When you encounter stress, your endocrine system (which controls your hormones) kicks into gear, telling your adrenal glands to release what are commonly known as the stress hormones—epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol.

You experience an increase in heartbeat, blood pressure, and breathing as a result of these stress hormones. During times of danger, your body can help you get out of a threatening situation. However, when you have a continued stress response occurring in your daily life, it can make your existing health conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis) much worse.

It's not just acute stress that causes your body to send out the stress hormones. Ongoing stress—such as living with a chronic condition like rheumatoid arthritis—can create a stress hormone imbalance in your body. The endocrine system is all about the delicate balance of hormones, so if part of the system is unbalanced, that may have an adverse effect on other systems in your body (such as the immune system).

Stress hormones can also ignite the immune system, causing it to release cytokines, which are chemicals that promote inflammation. When you're under stress, your body may release more cytokines—and more cytokines lead to more inflammation.

The Ongoing Stress of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Having a chronic inflammatory condition such as rheumatoid arthritis may make you feel like you're caught in a trap. Your inflammation and pain can cause stress, both ongoing stress and acute stress. Stress and your body's natural response to it can make your rheumatoid arthritis more active and painful.

We want you to know two things: you're not alone in this struggle, and there are ways to manage stress so that you can better manage your rheumatoid arthritis. Read our article on reducing stress to reduce your RA symptoms, or try our article on one specific stress-relief tip: venting.

Updated on: 06/30/15
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Rheumatoid Arthritis Stress Management Tip: Vent
Floranne Ernste, MD
This article was reviewed by Floranne Ernste, MD.
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Rheumatoid Arthritis Stress Management Tip: Vent

With rheumatoid arthritis, you must learn to manage stress (since stress can increase inflammation and arthritis pain). Read this article for one stress management tip: venting your emotions so that they don't build up and have a negative effect on your physical and mental health.
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