Jan 31, 2011 10:02 PM
Stress and rheumatoid arthritis often go hand in painful hand. Many people trace the onset of their rheumatoid arthritis (RA) to a stressful event in their lives.
"I was going through a really stressful period in my life when I first developed RA, and I really believe that it aggravated it a lot," says Keri Cawthorne, a fitness instructor and mother who was diagnosed with RA about a year ago. "I associate stress with my most painful flares. And when I'm really stressed, I don't sleep, so my body's not resting and not recovering. I know it affects me so much."
If you think stress is associated with your RA, there are studies that back you up. Some have documented this association between stress and the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, as well as flares. Even minor stress has been shown to affect inflammation levels in the disease.
How this happens is not entirely understood, says John Klippel, MD, president and CEO of the Arthritis Foundation. "The relationship between the brain, which is where stress starts, and the immune system is being intensely studied at the moment to better understand that. Some researchers believe that certain hormones that the brain releases in response to stress have the potential, in some people, to cause the immune system to become imbalanced."
Having a chronic health condition like RA can bring its own stresses to the mix. RA can cause additional stress by presenting challenges like making your hands too stiff and painful to button your jacket to being too exhausted to meet a work deadline.
Klippel believes that not enough attention has been paid to managing stress in rheumatoid arthritis. He suggests that people with RA make an organized effort to track just how stress is worsening their disease. Note in a "stress diary" when you're under stress and what the source is, whether it's at work, in your family life, financially, or otherwise. Then you can see more clearly when and how stress affects your rheumatoid arthritis.
Here are some strategies to help better manage stress and help keep it from aggravating your RA: