A new study is better defining the impact that stress and depression have on women suffering from rheumatoid arthritis

A new study is better defining the impact that stress and depression have on women suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The research, led by a team of ASU psychologists, shows increased pain and inflammation for those dealing with high amounts of stress and depression.

Research on the autoimmune disease that afflicts millions of Americans, led by ASU psychologist Alex J. Zautra, looks at how the body activates the immune system during periods of depression and stress. The study, which includes associate professor Mary C. Davis of ASU, David Yocum and Isidro Villanueva of the University of Arizona, Jeanne Attrep of the Phoenix Veterans Administration Hospital and Michael Irwin of UCLA, was just published in the Journal of Rheumatology.

In people with RA, the body's immune system does not self-regulate well enough, leading to an overabundance of pro-inflammatory cells designed to fight conditions, such as an infection. The result is often debilitating systemic chronic pain and inflammation that the body is unable to turn off.

The researchers studied 151 women ages 42 – 75 in three categories — a control group without any form of arthritis, patients with osteoarthritis and those with RA. The study specifically isolated periods of high stress and periods of depression for the patients.

The findings showed that RA patients had greater levels of disease activity and interleukin 6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine in the body that stimulates the production of immune cells during a stressful period.

When the patients were in a depressive state, and the stress was introduced, the disease activity and pro-inflammatory activity reached even greater levels.

Zautra says the implications are clear that science must do a better job looking at the whole person for answers to problems such as chronic pain.

“In searching for that magic bullet, we tend to neglect what is right in front of us,” he says. “We need to look at the impact of the person's emotional state and what social stressors are confronting her/him in life.”

Campbell, with Media Relations & Public Information, can be reached at (480) 965-7209 or ([email protected]).

This article appeared in the April 23 , 2004 issue of ASU Insight.

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