Arthritis and Mental Health  

 Learn more about the connection between arthritis, depression and anxiety, and how these conditions can make your arthritis worse. 

Having any form of arthritis — osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriatic arthritis (PsA), juvenile arthritis, lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, gout, fibromyalgia or related conditions — can have a negative effect on your mental health. This most commonly manifests as depression or anxiety. It works the other way around, too. Mental health problems can worsen arthritis symptoms. 

Defining Anxiety and Depression 

According to the American Psychological Association: 

  • Anxiety is characterized by feelings of tension, worry and irritability along with physical changes like increased blood pressure.  
  • Depression is characterized by sadness, a lack of interest in daily activities, weight loss or gain, sleeplessness or excessive sleeping, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. 

How Mental Health Affects Arthritis  

Rates of depression and anxiety in people with arthritis-related diseases vary depending on the population, the size of the study, and the measurement tools used. But data shows that the rates can be between two and 10 times greater than the rates in the general population, depending on the type of arthritis. 

Studies also show that anxiety and depression can lower your pain threshold. And then the chronic pain aggravates your anxiety and depression. Furthermore, people with arthritis and depression tend to have more functional limitations, are less likely to adhere to their treatment regimens, and have increased odds of developing other health problems. The vicious cycle of pain, poor health and negative mood can significantly change the course and management of your arthritis.  

Pain and Depression 

Many studies have shown clearly that people with arthritis with the highest pain levels are the most likely to be anxious or depressed. Exactly why higher pain severity is associated with depression is not clear. It seems to be a two-way street. 

  • Pain incites depression. Living with daily pain is physically and emotionally stressful. Chronic stress is known to change your levels of brain and nervous system chemicals. These stress hormones and neurochemicals — like cortisol, serotonin and norepinephrine — affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Disrupting your body’s balance of these chemicals can bring on depression in some people. 
  • Depression makes pain worse. Depression weakens a person’s ability to deal and cope with pain. A person’s perception about their condition, for example back pain, might become more negative when compared with individuals who are not depressed. 

Jon T. Giles, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and rheumatologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, says “Painful sensations are relayed through the brain in a very complex way, and can be modulated up or down.” Stress, poor sleep, anxiety and depression all influence pain levels, he explains. 

Inflammation and Depression 

We know that pain and disability are linked to depression in arthritis, but a developing theory is that inflammation also plays a role. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reviewed levels of C-reactive protein — a marker of inflammation — in 10,036 people who responded to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Those with symptoms of depression had CRP levels that were 31% higher than those with no depressive symptoms. 

There are many studies recognizing depression as an inflammatory state. “There is a well-documented event called cytokine-induced depression, where cytokines are increased, and depression occurs,” explains Patricia Katz, PhD, professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco. Specific cytokines, such as interleukin-1, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor-α, are involved in the pain and inflammation process in arthritis. 

Lifestyle and Depression 

Having arthritis is painful and exhausting. Inflammation and the fatigue that goes with it further drag you down. Add a co-occurring condition like diabetes or a heart condition, and the active life you once knew may have disappeared. These health challenges may cause you to not exercise, become less social and more isolated, and have worse sleep quality. These negative changes in your lifestyle can increase your pain and dampen your overall mood — bringing on the blues and depression. Although what causes depression in people with arthritis may differ, the link is real and potentially life changing. Treating not only your arthritis but also specifically treating your anxiety or depression is key to living your fullest life.

Here are some resources to help you tackle your mental health and emotional wellbeing:  

Listen to the episode Make Mental Health a Priority on the Live Yes! With Arthritis Podcast.  

Read our Coping & Comfort expert advice e-book.

Get expert tips, strategies and support to help you manage pain with our pain resources.

For an easy to use e YES

Stay in the Know. Live in the Yes.

Get involved with the arthritis community. Tell us a little about yourself and, based on your interests, you’ll receive emails packed with the latest information and resources to live your best life and connect with others.