Feeling a lot of stress day after day can take its toll over the years. Even without specific health conditions, excessive mental stress may be linked to unexplained aches and pains.
A recent long-term study found that women reporting high stress levels were more likely to have unexplained physical problems.
The researchers studies women in Sweden beginning in the 1960s, following them for almost four decades.
If these women reported high mental stress at the start of the study, they tended to have more physical complaints over the years that followed.
The study, led by Dominique Hange, of the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, looked at the health of women based on the stress they had experienced over several decades.
The study began with 1,462 Swedish women in 1968-1969, and the researchers have followed up with the women in 1974-1975, 1980-1981 and 2000-2001.
At the start of the study, women were one of several different ages: 38, 46, 50, 54 and 60.
At the start of the study and at each follow-up, the women answered questions about mental stress and any pain or similar physical symptoms they had that could not be explained by a specific medical condition.
The question regarding stress asked if the women had experienced a period of mental stress lasting one month or longer that involved irritability, tension, anxiety, nervousness, fear, difficult sleeping or anguish.
They were also asked if the stress was connected with their health, family, work or conflict with people around them.
The stress question was answered with a scale of 0 to 5:
- 0 was no mental stress
- 1 was no mental stress within the previous five years
- 2 was occasional mental stress within the previous five years
- 3 was mental stress several times in the previous five years
- 4 was constant mental stress during the previous year
- 5 was constant mental stress during the previous five years
Researchers also recorded the women's smoking status, their physical activity, their total cholesterol, their S-triglycerides, their body mass index (BMI), their waist-hip ratio, their blood pressure and their socioeconomic status.
At the start of the study, in 1968-1969, women with higher levels of mental stress tended to smoke, to be married and not to work outside the home.
The women who had high levels of mental stress at the start were more likely than women without high stress levels to report various physical problems that did not appear linked to a particular health condition.
They were almost twice as likely to have abdominal symptoms, and they were twice as likely to have headaches or migraines.
They were also a little less than twice as likely (70 percent more likely) to have muscular or skeletal issues and frequent infections (75 percent more likely).
Women who did not have these symptoms at the start of the study but who had higher levels of mental stress were more likely to report physical problems as time went on.
At the 1974-1975 follow-up, they were more than twice as likely to report abdominal symptoms, frequent infections and headache or migraine than women who did not report mental stress at the start of the study.
The researchers did not find that women were more likely to die sooner if they reported having high levels of mental stress.
Yet the women did have a higher number of physical symptoms that could not be traced back to a particular health condition.
The researchers concluded that their results show the importance of looking for ways to reduce the mental stress in women's lives.
Sarah Samaan, MD, a cardiologist with Legacy Heart Center in Dallas-Fort Worth and a dailyRx expert, said this study shows that mental stress can show up as physical symptoms in the body.
"These symptoms, while not necessarily dangerous, can have a major impact on quality of life and may also ratchet up healthcare costs," Dr. Samaan said.
"The good news is that mental stress will not shorten your life and will not cause hypertension," she said. "Interestingly, in this study women who worked outside the home and married women actually reported relatively lower levels of stress."
However, Dr. Samaan noted that other studies have suggested that stress from feeling a sense of a lack of control may increase the risk of heart disease or other health problems.
"This kind of stress can come from a job that feels overwhelming or from a non-supportive boss or spouse," Dr. Samaan said.
"This study did not address specific types of stress, so I think we still have to consider some forms of stress to be potentially risky to heart health," she said. "On the other hand, stress that we can control has been shown to have no substantial effect on our health."
The study was published April 24 in the journal International Journal of General Medicine. The research was funded by the Swedish Medical Research Council, the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Council for Life and Social Research, the Alzheimer's Association and the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.