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News Letter

Home Health Education Living With Joint Pain
Stress and Arthritis Pain Print E-mail

Stress is a normal part of life. It's the body's natural response to changes and challenges. It can be very helpful in the right situation. However, when the stress response is inappropriate or prolonged, it can take its toll on emotional and physical health. For people suffering from arthritis pain, stress makes it harder to cope. Luckily, the body has a natural way to counteract stress: the relaxation response. With practice, you can learn to bring on the relaxation response at will to better control your stress and arthritis pain.

The Stress-Arthritis Pain Cycle

The stress response is also called the fight-or-flight response. It's the body's way of gearing up to fight or flee when it encounters danger; heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, metabolism, and muscle tension all increase. These changes would come in handy if you were being attacked or chased. Unfortunately, the body can't distinguish between the threat of a predator in the wild and that of a past due notice on a bill, so it goes into the same state of high physiological alert. Over time, this can contribute to a host of health problems, including trouble sleeping, fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, and reduced resistance to infection. It also can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.

If you suffer from arthritis you need to be especially aware of stress, since it can make it harder to manage your symptoms. Unfortunately, having arthritis is a stressful experience. It's easy to get into a vicious cycle in which stress at home or work leads you to forget your medication or skip your exercise, which leads to more arthritis pain and fatigue, which leads to more stress about not being able to do the things you want, and so on.

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

"Relaxation and stress reduction techniques are designed to break this destructive cycle," says Robert Jamison, Ph.D., director of the pain management program at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. But this is no one-size-fits-all solution. "Different approaches work better or worse for different individuals," says Jamison.

Some people find that learning to control their negative thoughts and attitudes is very helpful. Others benefit from better organizing their lives to head off sources of stress and frustration. Others are helped by learning how to intentionally call up the relaxation response with deep breathing, meditation, imagery, and similar methods. This means more than just doing things that make you feel happy, such as listening to music or reading a book. It involves bringing on the physiological state that is the exact opposite of the stress response. In this state, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, metabolism, and muscle tension decrease, thereby undoing many of the harmful effects of stress.


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