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Within established rheumatoid arthritis (RA), stress can have pro-inflammatory effects by activating the immune system via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the autonomic nervous system. It is unknown if stress levels also promote inflammation during RA development. We studied whether the psychological stress response was increased in clinically suspect arthralgia (CSA) and if this associated with inflammation at presentation with arthralgia and with progression to clinical arthritis.
In 241 CSA patients, psychological stress was measured by the Mental Health Inventory (MHI-5) and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-10) at first presentation and during follow-up. Systemic inflammation was measured by C-reactive protein (CRP) and joint inflammation by 1.5 T-MRI of wrist, MCP, and MTP joints.
At baseline, 12% (24/197) of CSA patients had a high psychological stress response according to the MHI-5. This was not different for patients presenting with or without an elevated CRP, with or without subclinical MRI-detected inflammation and for patients who did or did not develop arthritis. Similar findings were obtained with the PSS-10. When developing clinical arthritis, the percentage of patients with ‘high psychological stress’ increased to 31% (p = 0.025); during the first year of treatment this decreased to 8% (p = 0.020). ‘High psychological stress’ in non-progressors remained infrequent over time (range 7–13%). Stress was associated with fatigue (p = 0.003) and wellbeing (p < 0.001).
Psychological stress was not increased in the phase of arthralgia, raised at the time of diagnoses and decreased thereafter. The lack of an association with inflammation in arthralgia and this temporal relationship, argue against psychological stress having a significant contribution to progression from CSA to inflammatory arthritis.