Stress has long been recognised as a silent antagonist that can wreak havoc on both our mental and physical well-being. Among the myriad health conditions exacerbated by stress, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a prominent example. This chronic autoimmune disorder not only inflicts pain on millions but is closely intertwined with the impact of stress on the body. We spoke to our expert who explained the hidden link between stress and RA.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis
“RA is a common autoimmune disease characterised by severe joint inflammation. This chronic condition leads to joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, significantly reducing joint mobility”, said Dr Dipti Patel, Consultant Rheumatologist, Wockhardt Hospitals, Mumbai Central.
“It doesn’t limit itself to joints alone; it can also affect other vital organs, such as the eyes, lungs, heart, and skin. The core feature of autoimmune diseases like RA is the immune system’s misguided attack on healthy tissues, leading to diverse symptoms and health complications”, added Dr Patel.
According to Arthritis Research and Therapy, RA doesn’t just impact the joints; it can also harm internal organs, leading to lasting disability in some cases. Presently, there is no cure for this autoimmune condition, so symptoms are managed individually.
How Does Stress Affect Rheumatoid Arthritis?
“Stress, particularly chronic stress, can significantly exacerbate this inflammation. When the body experiences stress, it triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which in turn promote inflammation”, explained Dr Pradeep Mahajan, Regenerative Medicine Researcher and Founder of StemRx BioScience Solutions India.
Dr Patel added, “Stress may also negatively impact the immune system’s functioning, making it harder for the body to regulate the autoimmune response responsible for RA.”
“Elevated inflammation levels can lead to an immune system response that attacks the synovium, the lining of the membranes that surround the joints, aggravating RA symptoms”, said Dr Mahajan.
Dr Mahajan added, “Moreover, stress-induced inflammation can lead to increased production of pro-inflammatory proteins known as cytokines. Elevated cytokine levels can further intensify the autoimmune response that characterises RA. Thus, stress acts as a catalyst for the self-destructive immune response that is at the core of this disease.”
Pain and Symptom Aggravation
The relationship between stress and RA is not just limited to the biological mechanisms at play. Stress can also impact the perception and tolerance of pain among RA patients.
“When stressed, individuals often experience heightened sensitivity to pain, which can make the discomfort of RA even more unbearable. Also, stress can exacerbate other common symptoms of RA, such as fatigue and sleep disturbances”, added Dr Mahajan.
He said, “The physical and emotional toll of RA is already substantial, and stress only serves to compound these challenges. The link between stress and RA is a two-way street.”
“While stress exacerbates RA symptoms, the chronic pain and reduced quality of life associated with RA can, in turn, create stress. This creates a vicious cycle, where disease and stress feed off each other, making it even more important to address both aspects for effective management”, explained Dr Mahajan.
The Mind-Body Connection
Understanding the mind-body connection is crucial for individuals with RA. Dr Patel said, “Stress and emotional well-being can have a significant impact on the course of the disease. Stress can exacerbate symptoms, potentially leading to increased pain and joint inflammation. Recognising this connection is the first step in effective stress management for RA patients.”
Stress and Immune Response
Stress profoundly influences the immune response in individuals with RA. Dr Patel said, “When stress levels are high, the body’s inflammatory response becomes overactive, causing increased pain and inflammation in the joints. This heightened immune response also contributes to the ongoing autoimmune attack on healthy tissues, worsening the condition. As such, managing stress is an essential part of controlling the progression of RA.”
Managing Stress for RA Patients
Our experts listed some tips for managing stress in RA patients as follows:
- Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practices like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can help reduce stress and promote relaxation.
- Prioritise rest: Balance activity and rest in your daily routine. Rest is a crucial component of self-care for RA patients, helping manage both physical and emotional stress.
- Psychological Support: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and counselling can assist in coping with the emotional challenges of RA and stress management.
- Exercise: Regular physical activity tailored to an individual’s capabilities can improve mood, reduce stress, and increase joint flexibility.
- Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage stress or depression.
- Social Support: Building a strong support network of friends and family can help in managing stress by providing emotional support.
[Disclaimer: The information in this article is shared by registered healthcare professionals and is for informational purposes only. We advise you to consult your expert for a treatment plan tailored to your needs and medical history.]