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Sleep and Arthritis: The New Connection

Addressing midlife aches and pains can improve sleep and ward off depression


by Sarah Mahoney

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It’s certainly not news that midlife and osteoarthritis often go hand in hand. But there’s new evidence that stiff joints may be monkeying with our sleep more than we ever dreamed, which can increase the risk of depression and even disability.

Osteoarthritis, which typically begins after age 40, affects 27 million people in the U.S., typically targeting the knees, hips and back, as well as the hands and fingers. (Early symptoms, the Arthritis Foundation says, include sore or stiff joints after either inactivity or overuse, which typically go away after movement.) While many people never suffer from more than occasional aches and pains, OA is one of the leading causes of disability.

The new research tackled the chicken-and-egg questions that dog people with sore joints: Are you feeling down because your knees hurt? Or might it be because pain is getting in the way of healthy sleep? Following 288 patients with OA in the knee, researchers at the Center for Mental Health & Aging at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa tracked sleep disruption, pain levels, functional limitations and depressive symptoms for a year. 

Here’s solid evidence that when soreness interrupts sleep, people with arthritis develop additional problems, including depression (which can be debilitating on its own), and that they are more likely to be disabled by their OA than those who sleep more soundly. Even more, the research has given experts new ways to think about breaking the cycle of distress that OA can generate.

The good news? The best way to both prevent and treat OA is also the best way to ward off most other midlife health problems—maintain a healthy weight, and add more activity. For arthritis, experts say, exercise continues to be the best medicine.

Photo Guide: Steven Puetzer/Getty