Have you ever felt especially stressed out—maybe your boss hasn’t been happy with your performance at work, or your bank account balance is hovering a little too close to zero—and noticed your joints ache more than usual? You might wonder if you’re making up the connection between the two, but it turns out, your head has a lot to do with your physical health.
Stress Can Make Pain Feel Worse
When you feel stressed, anxious, or depressed, you’re less able to deal with pain. One reason is because of cortisol, a hormone your body releases when you’re stressed out. For someone under chronic stress, the cortisol levels remain elevated, which triggers inflammation in your body. And that inflammation can cause your bones and muscles to break down, among other bodily damage. It’s no wonder high stress levels are associated with a risk for health issues that cause joint pain, like arthritis and fibromyalgia. Researchers from Tel Aviv University have also found that feeling an acute moment of stress—say, needing to get a project done on a tight deadline—causes pain to feel more intense and decreases your body’s ability to inhibit pain.
The Pain/Stress Cycle
Let’s say you already have painful joints, maybe from a condition like arthritis, and feel stressed—whether due to the health issue itself or from some outside factor in your life. In that situation, you might notice your joint pain feels worse. Unfortunately, as that happens, you might feel more stressed out, which makes the pain even more acute, and on and on.
Breaking Free of Stress and Pain
Sadly, there is no quick fix for stress—it’s part of life, but a few things have been shown to help stop the pain/stress cycle. In one study, researchers had 250 people with osteoarthritis in their knees either do yoga or physiotherapy exercises. Those who did yoga had more improvements to pain, stiffness, blood pressure, and, perhaps most importantly, anxiety. Other research shows mindful meditation might be helpful at reducing stress and pain and improving quality of life.
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