How Stress Affects Your Joint Health

Experiencing the occasional joint pain when you're climbing the stairs? Or, just worried about your joint health because someone in the family has arthritis?

If you’re like most people, the steps you’ll take to safeguard your joint health would likely be the following: lose weight, stay physically active, add strength training to your regime. 

While these strategies are excellent places to start, the truth is, you may be overlooking a crucial cause of joint pain. 

And it’s none other than stress. To be more specific, the chronic kind. 

What Does Stress do to the Body?

Stress–no matter if work, finances, or relationships cause it–triggers your body's response to a perceived threat or danger, known as the fight-or-flight response. As part of this build-in survival mechanism, your body releases specific hormones: adrenaline and cortisol (1, 2, 3, 4). 

Adrenaline ramps up your heart rate, drives up your blood pressure and sends your energy levels surging. 

Cortisol, on the other hand, boosts the rate at which your brain metabolises glucose, increases your blood sugar levels, and increases the availability of tissue-repairing proteins. 

In effect, the fight-and-flight response helps give your body a burst of energy and strength to cope with the perceived threat. And once the stressor has been successfully resolved, the systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response. 

As you can imagine, stress can be incredibly beneficial–especially when it comes to dealing with immediate, short-term stressors (e.g. rushing for a deadline). 

But all that changes once stress becomes chronic (i.e. you feel overwhelmed all day, every day). Forcing your body to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight can take a severe toll on your health. In particular: your joint health.

  

The Relationship between Chronic Stress and Joint Health 

Here are the various mechanisms through which stress adversely affects joint health. 

Causes Inflammation

Inflammation is your body’s response to a threat, whether it’s a foreign invader (e.g. bacteria or virus), or a psychological or emotional stressor. It signals your immune system to send out an army of chemicals–known as pro-inflammatory cytokines–to attack the invaders (4). 

Of course, this would be helpful if there were indeed a foreign invader in your body. This, however, isn’t the case when dealing with chronic stress. 

With nothing to attack, the pro-inflammatory cytokines remain in your system; in turn, causing a constant, low-grade, yet widespread inflammation in the body. 

And that can be disastrous to your joint health. 

That’s because the resulting inflammation attacks your healthy joint tissues and cause joint swelling, increased joint fluid, cartilage, and even bone damage (5). There can also be activation of nerves in the joint, leading to even more pain. 

Suppresses the Production of Collagen

Collagen helps maintain the integrity of your cartilage–the rubber-like tissue that protects your joints. In other words, collagen is crucial to joint health. Worryingly, though, it appears that cortisol, the key stress hormone, suppresses the production of collagen (6, 7, 8). 

Given that research indicates that as the amount of collagen in your body decreases, your risk of developing degenerative joint disorders such as osteoarthritis increases, it means that the more stressed you are, the more your joint health is bound to suffer (9).

Limits Healing

If you’re physically active, you’re likely no stranger to joint injuries, including strains–when muscles and/or tendons are overextended–and sprains, which are injuries to ligaments that hold bones together. 

Typically, most joint injuries will resolve with adequate rest. 

But that all changes when you’re struggling with chronic stress. That’s because cortisol (your stress hormone) interferes with activities important for wound healing by reducing the production of anti-inflammatory substances known as cytokines (10). 

In other words, it interferes with your body’s normal immune response that helps you heal. 

The result? Your injured area remains inflamed and is very slow to heal, which means that you’ll be struggling with your joint injuries for much longer than you actually need to. Worse still, this might cause a chronic injury to develop. 

Ways to Manage Stress

It’s not easy to manage stress; there are often many things that are out of your control. That said, though, there are tactics you can use to reduce stress’ negative effects, especially when it comes to your joints’ health. 

  • Exercise – Staying physically active is one of the most important things you can do to relieve stress. Regular exercise has been shown to lower your body's stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) in the long run. Not to mention, it also helps release chemicals, such as endorphins, that uplift your mood (11, 12, 13).

  • Spend time in nature – Multiple studies in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy have shown a strong association between time spent in nature and reduced stress (14). It appears that calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol, in turn, switching off the body's fight-or-flight response. You don't need to get out for long, either; a 2020 study shows that all you need is ten short minutes (15).

  • Slow, deep, controlled breathing – Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system (fight-and-flight), causing outward signs like fast breathing and raised heartrate. To counter these adverse effects, activate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). And one way you can achieve this is through deep, controlled breathing (16). Try this simple breathing exercise right now:
    - Relax your shoulders
    - Breathe slowly in through your nose for 3 to 4 seconds
    - Pause for 2 seconds at the top
    - Then, breathe out slowly through pursed lips for 4 to 6 seconds (double the time you take for breathing in)  

  • Try a meditation app – Research has consistently shown that meditation can decrease stress (17). To get started, try a meditation app; even 10 minutes a day will be helpful. 

  • Spend time with friends and family – Spending time with loved ones helps your body release oxytocin, a natural stress reliever (18, 18, 20). It can also bring you a sense of belonging and self-worth–improving your overall well-being and mood.

Stress is undeniably part-and-parcel of life. However, if you want your joints to stay in working order for as long as possible, you’ll want to do everything you can to lower your stress levels.

Experiencing the occasional joint pain when you’re climbing the stairs? Or, just worried about your joint health because someone in the family has arthritis?

If you’re like most people, the steps you’ll take to safeguard your joint health would likely be the following: lose weight, stay physically active, add strength training to your regime. 

While these strategies are excellent places to start, the truth is, you may be overlooking a crucial cause of joint pain. 

And it’s none other than stress. To be more specific, the chronic kind. 

What Does Stress do to the Body?

Stress–no matter if work, finances, or relationships cause it–triggers your body’s response to a perceived threat or danger, known as the fight-or-flight response. As part of this build-in survival mechanism, your body releases specific hormones: adrenaline and cortisol (1, 2, 3, 4). 

Adrenaline ramps up your heart rate, drives up your blood pressure and sends your energy levels surging. 

Cortisol, on the other hand, boosts the rate at which your brain metabolises glucose, increases your blood sugar levels, and increases the availability of tissue-repairing proteins. 

In effect, the fight-and-flight response helps give your body a burst of energy and strength to cope with the perceived threat. And once the stressor has been successfully resolved, the systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response. 

As you can imagine, stress can be incredibly beneficial–especially when it comes to dealing with immediate, short-term stressors (e.g. rushing for a deadline). 

But all that changes once stress becomes chronic (i.e. you feel overwhelmed all day, every day). Forcing your body to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight can take a severe toll on your health. In particular: your joint health.

  

The Relationship between Chronic Stress and Joint Health 

Here are the various mechanisms through which stress adversely affects joint health. 

Causes Inflammation

Inflammation is your body’s response to a threat, whether it’s a foreign invader (e.g. bacteria or virus), or a psychological or emotional stressor. It signals your immune system to send out an army of chemicals–known as pro-inflammatory cytokines–to attack the invaders (4). 

Of course, this would be helpful if there were indeed a foreign invader in your body. This, however, isn’t the case when dealing with chronic stress. 

With nothing to attack, the pro-inflammatory cytokines remain in your system; in turn, causing a constant, low-grade, yet widespread inflammation in the body. 

And that can be disastrous to your joint health. 

That’s because the resulting inflammation attacks your healthy joint tissues and cause joint swelling, increased joint fluid, cartilage, and even bone damage (5). There can also be activation of nerves in the joint, leading to even more pain. 

Suppresses the Production of Collagen

Collagen helps maintain the integrity of your cartilage–the rubber-like tissue that protects your joints. In other words, collagen is crucial to joint health. Worryingly, though, it appears that cortisol, the key stress hormone, suppresses the production of collagen (6, 7, 8). 

Given that research indicates that as the amount of collagen in your body decreases, your risk of developing degenerative joint disorders such as osteoarthritis increases, it means that the more stressed you are, the more your joint health is bound to suffer (9).

Limits Healing

If you’re physically active, you’re likely no stranger to joint injuries, including strains–when muscles and/or tendons are overextended–and sprains, which are injuries to ligaments that hold bones together. 

Typically, most joint injuries will resolve with adequate rest. 

But that all changes when you’re struggling with chronic stress. That’s because cortisol (your stress hormone) interferes with activities important for wound healing by reducing the production of anti-inflammatory substances known as cytokines (10). 

In other words, it interferes with your body’s normal immune response that helps you heal. 

The result? Your injured area remains inflamed and is very slow to heal, which means that you’ll be struggling with your joint injuries for much longer than you actually need to. Worse still, this might cause a chronic injury to develop. 

Ways to Manage Stress

It’s not easy to manage stress; there are often many things that are out of your control. That said, though, there are tactics you can use to reduce stress’ negative effects, especially when it comes to your joints’ health. 

  • Exercise – Staying physically active is one of the most important things you can do to relieve stress. Regular exercise has been shown to lower your body’s stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) in the long run. Not to mention, it also helps release chemicals, such as endorphins, that uplift your mood (11, 12, 13).

  • Spend time in nature – Multiple studies in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy have shown a strong association between time spent in nature and reduced stress (14). It appears that calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol, in turn, switching off the body’s fight-or-flight response. You don’t need to get out for long, either; a 2020 study shows that all you need is ten short minutes (15).

  • Slow, deep, controlled breathing – Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system (fight-and-flight), causing outward signs like fast breathing and raised heartrate. To counter these adverse effects, activate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). And one way you can achieve this is through deep, controlled breathing (16). Try this simple breathing exercise right now:
    – Relax your shoulders
    – Breathe slowly in through your nose for 3 to 4 seconds
    – Pause for 2 seconds at the top
    – Then, breathe out slowly through pursed lips for 4 to 6 seconds (double the time you take for breathing in)  

  • Try a meditation app – Research has consistently shown that meditation can decrease stress (17). To get started, try a meditation app; even 10 minutes a day will be helpful. 

  • Spend time with friends and family – Spending time with loved ones helps your body release oxytocin, a natural stress reliever (18, 18, 20). It can also bring you a sense of belonging and self-worth–improving your overall well-being and mood.

Stress is undeniably part-and-parcel of life. However, if you want your joints to stay in working order for as long as possible, you’ll want to do everything you can to lower your stress levels.