Brain Fog – is it all in your head?

Symptoms such as stiffness, swelling and pain may be typical for inflammatory arthritic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis among others. But many people often have trouble with their memory & concentrating, thinking clearly and just feeling ‘fuzzy’. This is often described as brain fog.

So does chronic inflammation also affect the brain, and if so, how?

The research

A study in 2018 conducted by Michigan Medicine’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center posed this question. Schrepf, a research investigator at the Center says, “Even though it has been assumed for a long time that the inflammation we see in blood is impacting the brain, up until this study we didn’t know precisely where and how those changes in the brain were actually happening”…and “wanted to understand what is happening in conditions where patients have inflammation for weeks, months, or years, such as in rheumatoid arthritis.”

The study used MRI to scan the brains of 54 participants with rheumatoid arthritis. The study participants had lived with rheumatoid arthritis for a period ranging from 2.85 years to over 20 years. Brain scans were taken both at the beginning of the study and 6 months later. Using MRI scans (shown above), researchers examined how rheumatoid arthritis inflammation changes the brain.

The brain scans indicated some disruption between various parts of the brain resulting in a breakdown of efficient communication and processing. The scans indicated that the brain fog phenomenon correlates to chronic inflammation in the body.

Study co-author author Neil Basu, Ph.D., of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, says, “This data supports the idea that rheumatoid arthritis inflammation targets the brain and not just the joints.” To read more about the study, see Further Reading below.

Given that your condition may be causing brain fog, what can you do about it?

Tips to Manage Brain Fog

  • Stay organised: establish a set schedule, use reminders and planners, write lists and keep items in the same place – such as your car keys in a certain bowl on the bench.
  • Sleep habits: To try to get more sleep, set up a sleep routine and make your bedroom a sanctuary – avoid stimuli such as having a TV in your room or using your phone/tablet just before bed.
  • Map your brain fog patterns: this will give you an insight into if there are times in the day/week that are worse than others – you can then plan around this accordingly.
  • Check Medications: ask your doctor if any of the medications you are taking could be making your brain fog worse.
  • Avoid over-stimulation: light, noise, weather conditions, shopping centres etc. can make brain fog worse. Limit your time in these environments if you know it affects you and take some quiet time out.
  • Exercising regularly – at your own level, build it into your routine so that you don’t find easy excuses to miss it.
  • Take time out when you need it – postpone, cancel, switch tasks etc. – you don’t need to make life harder than it needs to be!

We hope that these tips can assist you. For further information about managing your condition refer to our website resources here or call our Arthritis Infoline on 1800 011 041.

Sources & Further Reading

Medical News Today

Rheumatoid arthritis: How chronic inflammation affects the brain

What’s the link between brain fog and rheumatoid arthritis?

Health News US

Rheumatoid Arthritis May Be Impacting Your Brain Fog

Creaky Joints (US)

You Can Ease Inflammatory Arthritis Brain Fog with These 12 Tips for a Sharper Mind