Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder causing stiff and painful joints.
Exercise is challenging for those with this condition – but not, it seems, just because of painful joints.
New research findings¹ published recently indicate that physical activity can be extra difficult for older women with RA, because their nervous systems may overreact to relatively minor changes inside the muscles.
The researchers found that in older women with rheumatoid arthritis, the sympathetic nervous system appears to be hyperactive. The function of the sympathetic nervous system is to direct the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations.
Even when at rest, hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system causes high blood pressure and rapid heart rate, which over time can contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Participants in the study were asked to complete leg lifts, using a standard weight machine set to a low resistance for 3 minutes. Findings showed that participants’ nerves seemed especially sensitive to the working muscles. This resulted in contraction of blood vessels, causing high blood pressure, during and after the workout.
Professor Hamilton Roschel (Leader of the Applied Physiology & Nutrition Research Group in the Faculty of Medicine, University of São Paulo) advises patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis to “talk with your doctor how best to exercise, start slowly and keep a log of how you feel during workouts” ².
¹ Roschel H. et al., (2021) Increased sympathetic and haemodynamic responses to exercise and muscle metaboreflex activation in post‐menopausal women with rheumatoid arthritis. The Journal of Physiology, 599(3), 927-941.
² The Irish Times (24 May, 2021).