Inflammation and stress: Is there a connection?

Stress always seems to creep up on us at the most inopportune times and never seems to be limited to just one event. As the old adage goes, ‘when it rains, it pours’.

Stress and sleep | Muscle and Joint

Owen Wiseman

14 April 2021

What is the difference between muscle and joint inflammation?

The answer to this question lies in differentiating between what exactly a muscle is compared to a joint. Muscles are the puppet strings on our skeleton. Their contraction and relaxation are what allow us to move, and without them, we would be nothing but skin and bone – literally.

Joints are the areas between adjacent bones that allow for different motions including flexion and extension. This key dissimilarity tells us how inflammation might differ between the two.

Muscle inflammation can occur anywhere along the tissue and might often be described as 'diffuse' or 'poorly localized'.

Joint inflammation is commonly described as 'localized' since the pain or irritation is found in say, the knee or elbow joint.

How does stress lead to inflammation?

Now we need to remember that you are currently quite stressed. On your way to pick up the kids, with a project due in 24 hours and a leak at home. The pain in your joints starts to flare and you are sitting there wondering about the link.

When you enter a state of stress, the body has evolved a reaction known as the fight-or-flight response. This response gets activated when humans face a threat that puts our person in danger.

The body does not understand the difference between a physical threat such as a hungry lion and a psychological threat like a bill past due. This threat stimulates the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines with the purpose of attacking the invader. Once they finish with the invader, the cytokines return to baseline levels, but chronic stress can cause them to remain elevated.

Can stress make muscle and joint pain worse or causes pain?

The inflammatory cytokines can travel to the tissues of the muscles or joint spaces and cause irritation. They also play a role in mediating the pain response by lowering our threshold. This means we are more sensitive, and lower levels of these chemical agents produce the sensation of pain.

There is even some research looking at cancer cells role in producing inflammatory cytokines. This would contribute to the overall experience of pain in those battling the condition.

To give you further insight, consider that certain cytokines even play a role in reducing bone mineral density which puts you at an increased risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Can anxiety cause inflammation in the body?

As mentioned in the beginning, the body is none-too-skilled at differentiating between a physical and a psychological threat. Anxiety might arise because we are facing a threat, and in response, the body produces the same cascade of inflammation laid out in this article.

What is the fastest way to reduce inflammation in the body?

The ultimate question with countless answers depending on who you ask. Let's discuss a few of the more common responses.

  • Anti-inflammatory diet. 'You are what you eat' holds true when you consider how much inflammation there is in the body. The recommended foods won't surprise you in that they include vibrant fruits and vegetables which help reduce inflammation and are anti-oxidant as well. Nuts contain oils that are natural sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3's, often found in fish. Finally consider herbs and spices like turmeric which is often touted as the 'king' in the battle against inflammation.
  • Joint Pain Relief. This herbal remedy contains Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) which is loaded with harpagosides. These are potent anti-inflammatory agents that can help control the irritation, whether it is found in the joint or the muscle.
  • Consider aerobic and resistance exercise. While those with joint pain and obesity may shy away from this routine, it was shown to reduce joint pain in obese adults by 14 to 71.4%!
  • Managing your anxiety helps mitigate the influence of stress in the body as well. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in humans was conducted in 2020 and showed exciting results in the use of Avena sativa. Conducted out of the Brain Performance and Nutrition Research Centre, the authors showed supplementation over four weeks in healthy adults decreased the physiological response to stress. Products like Avenaforce contain an extract of the herb, helping to support the nervous system.
  • Breathing. Research is coming to understand the benefits of keeping in tune with our bodies, but how powerful is our breathing? Just 20 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing reduced inflammatory markers detected in the saliva.

No one answer is the right one, so it's always important to have a conversation with your primary care provider to determine the best option. In the meantime, if you do suffer from inflammation or joint pain, read our other articles including 5 Risk Factors of Wrist Pain or 4 Common Causes of Hip Pain.