Understanding Arthritis & Its Connection to Mental Health
Arthritis affects more than fifty million people in the U.S., making it the leading cause of disability in the country. The chronic condition is inflammation of one or more joints, characterized by pain, swelling, and stiffness. It can affect people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, but it’s more common in older adults.
National Arthritis Awareness Month is observed in the U.S. in May, focused on raising awareness about arthritis and its impact on millions of lives. The campaign focuses on educating the public about the importance of early diagnosis, treatment, and lifestyle changes to manage the condition effectively.
What Is Arthritis?
There are over 100 types of arthritis, the most common being osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout.
- Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, caused by the wear and tear of the cartilage, which cushions the joints. As the cartilage wears away, bones rub against each other, causing pain and stiffness. Osteoarthritis often affects the hands, knees, hips, and spine.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the joints, causing inflammation and pain. It can lead to joint deformity and bone erosion. Rheumatoid arthritis often affects the smaller joints, like those in the hands and feet.
- Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis caused by the buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints, resulting in sudden, severe pain, redness, and swelling. It commonly affects the big toe.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
The main symptoms of arthritis include:
- Joint pain
- Decreased range of motion
Treatment and Management
There’s no cure for arthritis, but various treatments can help manage symptoms and improve the quality of life.
- Pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications
- Physical therapy
- Joint injections
- Assistive devices
- Lifestyle changes
- Surgery (in severe cases)
Living With Arthritis: Tips for Managing Your Condition
Living with arthritis can be challenging, but many strategies and resources are available to help manage symptoms and maintain a good quality of life.
- Stay Active
- Engaging in regular physical activity, especially low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, or yoga, can help improve joint flexibility and reduce pain.
- Maintain a Healthy Weight
- Losing weight, which can put additional pressure on your joints, worsening arthritis symptoms, can help relieve pain and improve mobility.
- Apply Heat and Cold Therapy
- Alternating between heat, which can help relax muscles and improve blood flow, and cold therapy to numb the pain and reduce inflammation can provide relief.
- Practice Good Posture
- Maintaining proper posture can help reduce stress on your joints and minimize pain.
- Use Assistive Devices
- Consult with a physical or occupational therapist to determine which devices — canes, braces, or other devices — can help reduce pain and improve mobility.
- Manage Stress
- Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or mindfulness to help manage stress, which can exacerbate arthritis symptoms.
The Connection Between Arthritis and Mental Health
Arthritis and mental health have a multifaceted and complex connection. The pain caused by arthritis can significantly impact an individual’s mental health. Key factors that link arthritis and mental health include:
- Chronic Pain
- The persistent pain associated with arthritis can lead to emotional distress, anxiety, and depression. In addition, chronic pain can disrupt sleep, interfere with daily activities, and reduce overall quality of life, all of which can contribute to mental health issues.
- Physical Limitations
- Arthritis can limit a person’s ability to engage in activities they once enjoyed or to perform essential daily tasks. As a result, people can feel frustrated and helpless and have a reduced sense of self-worth, which can contribute to the development of mental health problems.
- Social Isolation
- The pain and physical limitations caused by arthritis can result in reduced social interaction and isolation, exacerbating feelings of loneliness, stress, and depression.
- Living with a chronic condition like arthritis can be stressful due to financial burdens associated with treatment, uncertainty about the future, or the need to manage a complex treatment plan. In addition, prolonged stress can have a detrimental effect on mental health.
- Inflammatory Response
- Research suggests that the inflammatory processes involved in arthritis may also be linked to the development of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. The exact mechanisms are not yet fully understood, but it is thought that the inflammation may affect brain function and neurotransmitter systems.
- Individuals with arthritis are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Conversely, people with mental health disorders may be at an increased risk of developing arthritis or experiencing worse arthritis symptoms.
Health Care in Rural Communities
The impact of arthritis on rural areas can be significant, although it may manifest differently than in urban areas. For example, rural areas often have limited access to healthcare facilities and specialized medical practitioners. People living in rural communities might also be more prone to social isolation, exacerbated by the limitations and chronic pain associated with arthritis.
While many rural communities may face these challenges, Vail Health serves our Vail Valley by providing specialty services and state-of-the-art care not typically found in rural regions.
Don’t Let Arthritis Prevent You From Enjoying Life
Individuals with arthritis need to seek appropriate medical care and support to manage their physical and mental health. Addressing the physical and psychological aspects of the condition can lead to improved overall well-being and quality of life.
If you or a loved one is experiencing joint pain, first contact your primary health provider (PCP) as they can determine the best treatment for your condition. The Physical and Occupational Therapy team at Howard Head Sports Medicine can provide treatment for certain types of arthritis, and Vail Health Behavioral Health can help you manage any mental health issues you may be experiencing.
This article was reviewed by Suzanne Torris, MS, RN, FNP.