How Can Stress Cause Pain?


Stress is a daily occurrence for most Americans, and it can impact our lives in many different ways. Whether it is work, family or traffic, stress is a part of our lives on a daily basis. While stress is a natural physiologic response that has allowed humans to adapt and thrive over the years, it also has negative side effects that we might not even be aware of on a daily basis. These side effects or symptoms can range from emotional to physical and can include things like depression, anxiety, weight changes, acne, insomnia, digestive issues, headaches, neck pain, back pain, and many more conditions.

We spoke to Dr. Jonathan Weimer, the resident chiropractor at Highlands Sport and Spine where they see a large variety of musculoskeletal pain symptoms. In many cases, stress can be related to and/or be the cause of the pain itself. Now, you might be asking, how can stress cause pain? While there are many areas of our body that are impacted by the stress response, we will focus briefly on the direct impact of stress on our nervous and muscular systems.

Stress in its purest form can be thought of as the “fight or flight” response and our central nervous system (spinal cord and brain) will regulate that response. Our central nervous system views stress as a threat to the system and will begin to regulate all areas of the body due to that threat. Hormones will be released that increase our heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. When these processes go on for too long or the stressor is not removed, it is very common to see associated symptoms like headache, neck pain, and chronic pain. Many times these symptoms are related to prolonged periods of muscular tension that lead to tension headaches and neck pain. Here are some of the three most common symptoms that occur due to stress:

  • Headaches– Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of stress and many people intuitively attribute their headaches to stress. Research even shows that up to 67% attribute stress as a trigger for their headache.
  • Neck Pain – Neck pain is another extremely common symptom in our society; whether that is due to stress or postural related pain, it usually involves excessive muscle tension. Increased muscle tension is one of the common symptoms of stress and if that tension does not go away, it may lead to pain. Combine stress with long periods of sitting and that is a recipe for muscle tension and pain in the neck.
  • Chronic Pain– Chronic pain is a hot topic these days due to its prevalence in American society, an estimated 20% by the CDC. Chronic pain can have many different causes but stress has shown to be associated with chronic pain in many cases. Many times this association can be seen with increased cortisol levels, the main component of the stress response of our body. Combine this with chronic muscle tension, a side effect of stress, and it can be a tough cycle to break.

What Can You Do About Stress and Pain?

First of all, if you can identify the stressor and eliminate it, that would be the most beneficial but that is not always possible. There are other effective treatments that can help alleviate pain associated with stress. Highlands Sport and Spine offers an integrative healthcare model, offering multiple modes of treatments like chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy, dry needling, cupping, personal training, and physical therapy modalities to help alleviate muscle tension and relieve pain.

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