Maintaining a basic level of movement and exercise is important for many reasons, including supporting our mental health. When our joint health is impacted by pain or inflammation, it can have a large impact on our ability to stay healthy.

How does joint health impact mental well-being?

Joints allow our bodies to move in a variety of ways—bending, pulling, lunging, hinging, and more. When joints are healthy, it's easier for us to engage in movement, which can lead to improved mental health. Healthy joints also mean less pain—and pain can lead to negative mental health.

Joint health and exercise

Exercises that support joint health, including walking, swimming, and low-impact exercise, make you feel good, too. Engaging in physical activity releases endorphins, which are hormones released into the brain that make us feel good and help to reduce the sensation of pain. Endorphins help to lower stress, anxiety, and depression—which can then help you feel like exercising more regularly, improving your overall health while keeping your joints fluid and moving.

Joint pain can lead to psychological stress

Any pain in the body can lead to psychological stress, and joint pain, including arthritis, is a common pain condition. Joint pain can also become chronic, and research shows that chronic pain is linked to mental health disorders. Struggling with pain and the limitations that can come with it can increase our feelings of depression and anxiety—for example, if you experience chronic knee pain, you likely don't want to aggravate it by walking around to meet up with friends. In this case, someone experiencing chronic pain may also become more isolated and lonely.

Inflammation can contribute to cognitive decline

Studies show that prolonged inflammation in the body can contribute to cognitive decline and dementia as we get older. Inflammation is a normal response to help heal the body, but it's supposed to be temporary. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, can lead to tissue damage within the body and activate stress hormones in the brain, contributing to impaired cognitive abilities over time. Aerobic exercises, a balanced diet, and lifestyle changes can not only reduce inflammation but help support joint health at the same time.

How to improve joint health to support your mental health

There are simple steps that can improve your joint health and support your mental health at the same time.

  • Mindfulness moving practices, such as yoga and tai chi, combine physical movement and mental well-being. These exercises promote stress reduction, focus, and joint flexibility, all at the same time.
  • Lifestyle changes, such as achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking or quitting, and creating a sustainable and supportive exercise routine, can keep your joints healthy and your stress low.
  • If you find that your stress, anxiety, or depression are preventing you from engaging in regular physical activity, talk with a therapist or trusted friend about your concerns. Simple mental health walks with friends can be good for your mind and your body.

How to treat joint pain at home

It's natural that most of us will experience repeated joint pain—more than 20 percent of Americans, or 53 million people, have been diagnosed with arthritis. If your pain is generally mild, there are many at-home remedies you can try at home to help improve your joint health. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) can help diminish discomfort and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis. Another option is an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory topical cream, which can be especially helpful to reduce pain and swelling in the hand, wrist, elbow, knee, and ankle.

If you are experiencing an acute flair up of joint pain, cut back on the activities associated with the pain. In addition to using over-the-counter medications, try icing the affected area to further reduce swelling and inflammation. If you are experiencing a lot of swelling, particularly in the knees or ankles, elevating those joints can also help. 

When to speak with a doctor about your joint pain

If your joint pain is related to a fall or other injury, or if the pain does not respond to over-the-counter medications and home remedies, contact your primary care physician. Your doctor can order an x-ray or prescribe physical therapy to help resolve the pain and discomfort. Your doctor can also refer you to an orthopedist for further evaluation. 

There are additional therapies an orthopedist may try before recommending surgery. These may include injections, gait aids, or nonsteroidal medications. Joint replacement surgery for arthritis is a consideration if you have ongoing pain and impaired quality of life. You may be limited in your ability to walk, dress or participate in activities you enjoy. Sometimes it affects your ability to work, or even your sleep. Although there are risks associated with joint replacement surgery (as with all surgeries), surgery may be your best option to return to living life as you did before the arthritis set in. 

If you are experiencing chronic joint pain, the Lifespan Orthopedics Institute can help get you moving again.

John A. Froehlich, MD

John A. Froehlich, MD

Dr. John Froehlich is an orthopedic surgeon and the program director of the Total Joint Center at The Miriam Hospital. He specializes in adult reconstructive surgery and sports medicine.