Stress Can Exacerbate Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

Christine Miller Health Guide
  • Last year, I wrote about research finding links between stress and depression and increased rheumatoid arthritis disease activity. Now, new research presented this month at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association shows that chronic stress can exacerbate inflammation and increases a person's risk of developing autoimmune inflammatory diseases like RA; neurodegenerative diseases, like MS, and central nervous system infections.


    The research, which tested the effects of social/environmental stress on mice, showed that stress inhibits the immune system, making the mice more vulnerable to viral infections of the central nervous system and later to increased risk of worsening symptoms of autoimmune diseases like MS. The injected socially stressed lab mice with Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis (TMEV). TMEV causes an acute infection of the nervous system, followed by a chronic autoimmune disease similar to MS in humans. They found that stress increases levels of a cytokine called IL-6 (interleukin-6), which inhibits the immune system, lessening its ability to clear viruses and infection. The researchers then used neutralized antibodies during stressful episodes to prevent the levels of IL-6 from increasing and prevented worsening of the TMEV infection. They concluded that early impairment of early immune responses to infection increases viral levels, prolongs viral infection, increases CNS inflammation and later increases the severity of the chronic autoimmune disease.

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    The researchers hope that further studies will help scientists determine which biobehavioral mechanisms will counteract the adverse effects of stress. It is also possible that blocking increases in the cytokine IL-6 may prevent or reverse the adverse effects of social conflict in humans. Some potential interventions cited are remedies currently known to decrease either stress or inflammation, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants, exercise and relaxation training, and omega-3 fatty acids.


    Symptoms of Stress

    Life stressors affect us physically, and cause symptoms such as back and neck pain, trouble sleeping, hair loss, fatigue or upset stomach. Stress also causes emotional symptoms such as anxiety, depression, helplessness, overreactions, feeling out of control, or lack of concentration and memory problems.

    Managing/Reducing Stress

    The following are a few suggestions for reducing stress in our everyday lives:

    • Identifying the sources of stress (e.g. work, family, health)
    • Management and stress reduction techniques (e.g. listening to music or relaxation tapes, eating healthy and getting enough sleep, managing time and schedules, accepting help from others, organizing and simplifying your life)
    • Coping strategies (e.g. focusing on the positive, making time for relaxation, sharing thoughts with family or friends
    • Meditation
    • Yoga or Tai Chi
    • Keeping a journal
    • Progressive muscle relaxation
    • Biofeedback
    • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (changing the way you think and behave in order to reduce stress or depression)

    How do you manage stress? Have you tried any of the techniques above and how helpful have they been to you?

Published On: August 27, 2007