When arthritis and depression coexist: Tips for the clinician

| February 21, 2022

Arthritis, which comes in more than 100 different forms, affects millions of Americans. For many, the disease extends beyond pain, stiffness, and swelling, taking a psychological toll as well.


ADMIN2-Arthritis underestimated, especially under age 65

Arthritis affects a much higher percentage of the US adult population and at a younger age than previously thought, researchers report.

Depression and anxiety are common comorbidities. In total, 43.2% of Americans have arthritis-induced activity limitations, and 26.2% of adults with arthritis struggle with depression, compared with 10.7% of those without arthritis.

In a 2017 article published in Expert Review of Pharmacoeconomics & Outcomes Research, authors expatiate the relationship between depression and different types of arthritis. They cited that the prevalence of depression varied from 4.0% to 66.2% in those with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

The authors qualified their findings by mentioning that studies examining the prevalence of comorbid OA and depression were inconclusive. They also noted that overall, depression rates varied widely.

“These differences in rates may be due to many factors: differences in defining depression, type of arthritis, tools used to detect depression, use of different thresholds with the same tools, and country of residence,” the authors wrote.

The CDC noted that in addition to depression symptoms being more than twice as common in adults with arthritis, one of five patients with arthritis had anxiety symptoms compared with one of nine adults without arthritis.

Those with arthritis alone compared with those with comorbid depression and arthritis were less likely to engage in physical activity, as well as more likely to have joint limitations, work limitations, and social-activity limitations. Taken alone, depressive symptoms can affect the functional ability in those with arthritis.

The authors pointed to various studies that highlighted the increased risk of all-cause mortality correlated with depression. In those with RA and depression, the death risk was 2.2 times higher compared with those with RA and without depression.

In the US, suicidal thoughts in those with arthritis affected 5.6% of a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) cohort compared with 5.1% of those with cancer. Of note, there is a paucity of literature on the association between mortality risk and OA.

Results from a 2016 Scientific Reports longitudinal study indicated that in the case of RA, there may be a bidirectional relationship underlying its association with depression.

Neurotransmitter deregulation and impaired intracellular signaling could bridge psychological stress and immune-related disease. Of note, chronic negative mood has been related to dysfunction of the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and peripheral release of glucocorticoids, as well as increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic activation. These autonomic triggers induce inflammatory markers, which advance autoimmune disease.

“Conversely, a growing body of evidence has also indicated that these pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF-α and some interleukins, may mediate the HPA activation in response to various threats to homeostatic balance, and could, therefore, play a decisive role in the generation of major depression,” they wrote.

The CDC stressed that depression symptoms can decrease response to arthritis treatment and result in decreased quality of life.

“Improving mental health can even reduce pain, independent of other pain management strategies,” they wrote.

Physicians should also motivate patients to remain physically active. Self-management and physical activity enhance mood, boost energy, and decrease symptoms of arthritis, depression, and anxiety.

The Arthritis Foundation wrote that SSRIs and SNRIs are first-line treatments for depression and anxiety. Buspirone may also be used long-term to help curb anxiety. Importantly, benzodiazepines are habit forming and should be used only short-term.

In addition to psychotherapy, other treatment options include yoga, massage, visualization, nutrition, meditation, and support groups.

In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Rheumatology, authors found that high-disease activity (HDA) could lay the foundation for depressive symptoms in early rheumatoid arthritis (ERA).[5] This risk appears highest in women with active disease and comorbidity. These patients should be a population of targeted focus, screening and research, according to the authors.

“Our findings suggest that controlling disease activity over time to the lowest possible state may have the added benefit of limiting psychiatric comorbidity. Future studies on the optimal evaluation and treatment of depression, and how this may coincide or complement the management of patients with ERA, is needed,” they wrote.