Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are two seemingly unconnected conditions. PTSD is a mental health condition with symptoms such as anxiety, nightmares, and uncontrollable thoughts about a traumatic experience. Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting joints. Surprisingly, several studies have shown a link between the two.
The Statistical Connection
The Nurse’s Health Study revealed that women with four or more symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are at a higher risk of developing Rheumatoid Arthritis. For these women, their RA risk factor is increased by 76 percent. Women exhibiting one to three PTSD symptoms had a 31 percent higher chance of having RA. Those with no symptoms but previous trauma exposure had an increased risk as well, with a 25 percent higher incidence of RA.
A study of twin pairs indicated that those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms in the highest quartile were 3.8 times more likely to suffer from RA than those with symptoms in the lowest quartile. This study is notable for the fact that it provided adjustment for genetic and familial factors.
How PTSD Contributes to RA
PTSD and other conditions associated with depression and anxiety often exhibit physical symptoms. Pain can be one of these symptoms. This establishes a connection between physical discomfort and PTSD. PTSD is widely associated with diseases eliciting an immune response, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Patients who have both experience faster disease progression and more severe arthritis symptoms, as well. Additionally, thyroid disease, psoriasis, and diabetes are associated with chronic PTSD.
How RA Increases Risk of PTSD
Patients who have RA have a higher risk of mental, emotional, and neuropsychiatric conditions. The ongoing pain and illness that these patients face is a major contributor to these types of problems. Battling a chronic illness takes a psychological toll that’s undeniable. If a patient is at an increased risk of PTSD due to traumatic events in his or her life, dealing with RA could heighten this risk level further.
Patients who have RA also tend to have more severe symptoms of PTSD. Though it’s unclear why this association occurs, it’s important to make a note of the heightened risk factor. Mental Health providers should document all physical conditions for a complete evaluation.
The Genetic Correlation
There is some evidence to suggest a genetic connection between patients’ risk factors for RA, PTSD, and other conditions. A higher allele count on particular genes is associated with an increased risk for PTSD. An allele is a variation of a gene. Nicotine dependence, inflammatory mechanisms, sleep regulation, and substance misuse are all associated with these same genes. This may explain why particular patients are more likely to smoke, struggle with anxiety, and have RA. There’s an overlap in their risk factors that contributes to an increased likelihood of struggling with these problems.
If you have or are at risk for having either Rheumatoid Arthritis or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it’s important to make a note of the association between the two. Work with your physician to identify any symptoms of burgeoning problems early so you can pursue the appropriate treatment. This includes talking to both your physician and your mental health provider.