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News Letter

Home Health Education Living With Joint Pain
Arthritis Pain and Anxiety: Your Fears Could Be Increasing Your Arthritis Pain Print E-mail

Arthritis pain and anxiety often go hand in hand. "In general, there seems to be a tendency for anxiety to amplify pain," says Mary Meagher, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M; University.

Meagher's own research backs up this notion. In a recent study (Pain, 2000), she and a colleague randomly assigned 60 healthy college students to one of three groups. In one group, anxiety was aroused by the threat of an electric shock. Pain sensitivity was tested before and after. It was found that people were more sensitive to pain after their anxiety had been raised.

Meagher says there's a good reason our bodies are designed this way; "During times of anxiety, the chance of survival is increased if pain is enhanced, so that the person behaves in ways that minimize the chance of injury."

The Lowdown on Arthritis Pain and High Anxiety

The problem occurs when a person's anxiety level stays high for a long time, even when the immediate risk of injury is low. This can happen for many reasons, including failure to adjust to a chronic illness such as arthritis.

"Certain people have a lot of anxiety about their illness and what it's going to mean for their lifestyle," says Meagher. "In some cases, people start anticipating worst-case scenarios. In other cases, they go into denial about the reality of their situation."

One common fear is that the pain will only get worse. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A vicious cycle may develop, in which higher anxiety leads to greater arthritis pain sensitivity, which leads to more anxiety, which leads to more arthritis pain, and so on. When anxiety keeps escalating this way, people are likely to grow increasingly frightened about their loss of control over the pain and stress.

Anxiety isn't destiny, however. There are ways to break out of this destructive pattern. One of the most helpful is to become more aware of your own thinking. If you notice that you habitually respond to pain with negative thoughts, such as "This is never going to end," you can make a conscious effort to replace them with more positive ones, such as "I'll feel better once the pain medication kicks in."

Seeking Professional Help

Of course, making these sorts of changes isn't easy once anxiety has already gained a firm hold. In such situations, professional treatment can be very helpful. These are some signs that you might benefit from professional help:

  • Constant, exaggerated worrisome thoughts
  • Long-lasting feelings of stress over everyday activities
  • A habit of expecting the worse, even when there is no reason
  • An inability to relax, or trouble sleeping
  • Unexplained physical symptoms, such as tiredness, trembling, muscle tension, headache, upset stomach, or irritability
  • Repeated attacks of intense panic that strike without warning and include disturbing symptoms, such as chest pain, a pounding heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, upset stomach, and a fear of dying
  • Repeated, unwanted thoughts or behaviors that seem impossible to stop
  • Extreme, irrational fears that unnecessarily limit your life

If anxiety seems to be getting the best of you, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Counseling, medications, or both often can be very effective at breaking the anxiety-arthritis pain cycle and helping you move on with your life.

 

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