Stress and Neck Pain

Recently I thought to myself, “Neil, you seem to be treating a heck of a lot of people in severe, daily on-going pain.  What’s going on?” 

As I looked closer at all these patients I realized that the one common underlying factor is stress.  Have you noticed that everyone and everything has suddenly this year become stressful?  What was once a relaxing catch up with friends has become something that you squeeze in between everything else that is going on in life.  We no longer have the time to just sit and relax.  Now this may be just the stage of life that my family and my friends are at, but I don’t think so.  Just under the surface of most patients who have a slow buildup of muscle or joint pain is stress.  Work pressure, time poor, finance worries, relationship problems, constant juggling of multiple things at once, kids, elderly parents, sickness, pain.   And the list could go on forever.  Stress – it’s all pervading and a constant pressure. 

Now I’m not going to tell you all you how to cope with this constant pressure, but I would like to explain how this is affecting our musculo-skeletal system.  Stress has a physical effect on the body. When you suffer from stress, your body releases hormones which are aimed at putting your body in fight or flight mode.  Great for a short term boost, such as getting the kids to school on time or cooking dinner after a big day at work.  However, long term stress means that our body maintains this flight or fight mode for extended periods and that means that it's releasing hormones that tense muscles and leads to joint irritation. 

Joint irritation is caused by tight and tense muscles due to the fact that they pull on their origin and insertion points.  Our body responds to irritation with an inflammatory reaction and that means that our stressful lives have resulted in most of us having constant low grade inflammatory reactions, especially in our necks, backs and shoulders.  As a result, it doesn’t take much for the amount of irritation and inflammation to increase to a level that fires off our pain fibres and pain and stiffness then result.  The trigger may be as simple as holding a posture at work for a prolonged period or picking up the grandkids or doing too much gardening on the weekend.

The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to help ease our muscle tension and joint irritation. If you do have neck, shoulder and back pain you could try the following:

  • Massage: Massage is one of the best ways to reduce pain in the neck. You can self-massage and find some relief, but paying for a massage or asking a significant other to rub your muscles can genuinely help push out some of the tension in your body and release some of the stress that causes this type of neck pain.
  • Heat: Heat is also very soothing for tense muscles. Use a hot pack regularly and place it directly over your sore muscles.  A hot bath is ideal, but you can also consider a hot shower as well and simply stand in there long enough for your neck muscles to warm up. Heat makes it harder for your muscles to hold in tension, and in some cases the water and steam may be soothing to your stress.
  • Exercise: If it's not too painful, some gentle walking and exercise can improve muscle tension symptoms and also helps us deal better with our stress hormones.
  • Posture: A good posture is vital to maintaining spine, joint and muscle health.  Give yourself cues at work or around the house, such as little post it notes to remind you to make sure you are working on a good posture.
  • Supplements: There is a large range of supplements out there, but there is reasonable evidence to suggest that Magnesium in particular can help to relieve muscular tension. 

Tense muscles do have a tendency to linger and you may feel that additional treatment may be valuable.  And, of course, if you don’t correct the cause of the pain, the symptoms are likely to come back.  Physiotherapists are experts at identifying the cause of your pain and stiffness and in correcting the joint and muscle problems associated with stress.  At Physique Physiotherapy, we help thousands of people every year to get rid of their pain and, very importantly, to keep it away. 

Lifeline’s “Stress Down Day” is on July 25th and as a result Physique Physiotherapy is offering an amazing special for the month of July: 50% off Initial Consultation!  Let us make a difference in your life, make an appointment soon and take a step closer to getting your pain and stress under control. 

By Neil Bell.