This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (10–16 May 2021), an event committed to raising awareness of mental health issues and mobilising support efforts. During a year that has put considerable strain across the well-being of the nation, sufferers of autoimmune joint health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), have undoubtedly experienced increased lifestyle changes taking a toll on their mental health.
In fact, a new study published recently in the Oxford Rheumatology journal has shown that levels of anxiety and depression have ‘significantly increased’ among RA patients during the pandemic. Identified as a higher-risk health category, RA patients have faced even fewer opportunities to stay active and interact socially this year, adding to the mental health burden of their symptoms.
A chronic condition, RA is the second most common form of arthritis in the UK, caused by the immune system wrongly attacking healthy joint tissues. This leads to sustained inflammation, over time permanently damaging joints and causing pain, stiffness, reduced mobility, and fatigue. According to Versus Arthritis, over 430,000 adults in the UK currently have RA, with diagnoses most prevalent between the ages of 40 and 60; however, all ages can be affected.
Increasing mental health challenges this year exacerbate an already high prevalence among the arthritic population. One in five adults with arthritis has been found to experience depression and anxiety, with a survey by GOPO Joint Health identifying that as many as 62% of sufferers struggle with walking – one of the few pastimes enjoyed by many throughout the pandemic.
According to Dr Alastair Dickson, GP and health economist with an interest in rheumatology and arthritis: ‘One of the major problems of persistent pain, including from rheumatoid arthritis, is low mood and depression. The risk of this increases if your pain affects mobility, energy levels, and ability to work. Pain symptoms can also be more intense if you have a low mood or are depressed, and it is typically harder to treat the pain if you do not address the mental health issues as well. If you are struggling with low mood or depression from your pain, there is help available and it is really important that you contact your primary care team who can help you with this.’
Recent studies have shown that pain is the largest impacting factor to health-related quality of life within the UK, and persistent pain has been further highlighted as a major component in the increased anxiety and depression experienced by arthritis sufferers. However, with mounting evidence against the use of painkillers long-term, many healthcare professionals and patients are looking towards alternative and sustainable solutions for chronic pain conditions.
Dr Alastair Dickson adds: ‘Painkillers (analgesics) are often used for the pain of arthritic conditions such as RA. Over recent years evidence has been accumulating that overuse of painkillers is problematic and doesn’t necessarily “cure” the pain. There is currently a very large change in practice being suggested in England with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) draft guidance advising that treatments involving most painkillers for chronic pain should not be used long term as they are ineffective.’
Fortunately, scientifically backed food supplements offer hope for patients seeking pain relief without dependence on painkillers, which are shown to have potentially harmful side effects if taken long-term. Experts believe that a key ingredient derived from rosehips could help to reduce pain and tenderness in joints, without the risk of side effects.
In one double-blind randomised controlled trial, 74 patients with RA received supplementation of the active compound, known as GOPO, or a placebo, for a six-month period. During the trial, the overall tenderness of painful joints was seen to reduce considerably among those taking GOPO and overall quality of life was greatly improved. Activity among the GOPO group improved by 20% to 25% and the number of joints causing pain or discomfort fell by 40%.
Dr Kaj Winther, biochemist and lead study author, comments: ‘The trial was more positive than we had ever expected and the findings are incredibly exciting. This evidence shows that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds in GOPO had a wide therapeutic effect in RA; it could potentially make a huge difference towards improving patients’ lives.’
These findings support further robust research into GOPO treatment successfully reducing pain and improving mobility for a range of hard-to-treat joint health conditions. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that it can switch off certain genes responsible for inflammatory joint destruction, helping to preserve joint tissues.
The success of GOPO in relieving joint pain and increasing mobility enables those affected by joint health conditions to maintain a fulfilling and active life, free from the burden of symptoms on their mental health.