How Stress Contributes to Chronic Neck and Shoulder Pain

By

Elizabeth Beasley

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Stressed woman

Stress can be a real pain in the neck…and shoulders. Currently 1 in 10 people suffer from neck or shoulder pain. To add insult to injury, the American Psychological Association reports that 25% of all Americans suffer from high levels of stress while another 50% say they experience moderate chronic stress levels. When you combine emotional and physical stress with an aching neck or shoulder, you can wind up with chronic irritability, fatigue and even depression. But before things get that bad, let’s see how stress contributes to pain and some ways to get it under control.

How the Stress Response Works

The stress response is a blend of physical and emotional components that prime your body to run or fight when faced with danger. When the brain is triggered, the body releases cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that prepare your body for action. Physical changes include a higher heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid breathing and tensed muscles. When this happens repeatedly, it can cause aches, pains and irritated nerves.

This reaction to stress happens to us in small spurts all day, every day and it works well to protect us from harm. Problems start happening when you experience chronic stress. This could be chronic physical stress from standing or doing repetitive motions at your job. Or it could be chronic emotional stress like dealing with a difficult personal relationship or financial troubles. So how does this normal response to life’s daily challenges make its way to your neck and shoulders?

How Stress Increases Neck and Shoulder Pain

Stress isn’t always the cause of neck and shoulder pain, but it can certainly make even the smallest existing pain much worse. Here’s how it affects your neck and shoulders.

  • Enlarges the blood vessels in your large muscle groups to allow faster oxygen delivery

  • Causes you to clench and tighten muscles in the neck, jaw and shoulders

  • Increases tension in the trapezius muscles that run across the top of the back

  • Restricts neck and shoulder movement

  • Heightens your perception of pain and makes existing pain feel worse

When you experience mental or physical stress again and again, your body is constantly prepared for battle but is never allowed to release that tension. Eventually this irritates your muscles and nerves, causing pain that can be difficult to manage because it’s difficult to pinpoint or remove your stress triggers.

Treatments to Try

One of the best ways to deal with neck and shoulder pain that’s irritated by stress is to stretch and relax frequently throughout the day. Here are few good habits to incorporate into your daily routine.

  • Neck stretches – This quick stretch can be done while standing or sitting. Lower your chin to your chest for 15 seconds and let the weight of your head stretch your upper back. The drop your head to the right side for 15 seconds and to the left side for 15 seconds. Try to do this every hour throughout the day.

  • Progressive relaxation – With this technique, you mentally focus on individual muscles to tighten and relax them. For example, rest your elbows on your desk and press your face into your hands. This will make your neck tense. Then release the tension and concentrate on the muscles in your neck, feeling them slowly relax. Continue to imagine the muscles deeply relaxing. Then try this tense-release-relax concentration with other muscle areas until you’ve worked through all the places you feel pain.

  • Meditation – Calming the mind helps relax neck and shoulder muscles and eases pain. Sit quietly with your eyes closes for 5-10 minutes and listen to a guided meditation or just let your mind be still. It might take some practice, but meditating 10-20 minutes every day reduces chronic stress and helps you remain relaxed during stressful situations.

  • Move your body – This may feel like the opposite of relaxing, but aerobic exercises such as jumping jacks or arm circles will engage the muscles in your neck and shoulders to increase blood supply, stretch the muscles and release toxins.

If your stress-induced pain lasts more than a few weeks, talk to your doctor about treatment options. Sometimes the effects of severe stress can be managed with medication, psychological counseling or physical therapy.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: May 6, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Knot in Your Neck? 4 Ways to Relieve Trigger Point Pain. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2014/05/knot-in-your-neck-4-ways-to-relieve-trigger-point-pain/
  2. Warning Signs of Emotional Stress: When to See Your Doctor. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/healthy_living/hic_Stress_Management_and_Emotional_Health/hic_...
  3. An Overview of Neck and Shoulder Pain. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_an_overview_of_neck_and_shoulder_pain
  4. Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health Publications. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
    Psychological stress responses, muscle tension and neck and shoulder pain among supermarket cashiers. US National Library of Medicine. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10431284
  5. Psychological stress responses, muscle tension and neck and shoulder pain among supermarket cashiers. US National Library of Medicine. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10431284

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