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Does Stress Cause Chronic Neck Pain? How Relaxation Strategies Can Help You Keep Pain At Bay

By Asim S. Aijaz, M.D.

Stress can certainly cause or even exacerbate chronic neck pain. When you experience stress, whether a chronic stress disorder, or bouts of anxiety, or depression, your body will trigger the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your “fight or flight” response. This response, when triggered, will produce and release an increase in cortisol and adrenaline hormones. Elevations in cortisol, particularly, can lead to a loss in muscle mass and an increase in fat accumulation. In moments of threat, your body’s stress response is a helpful reaction because it can help you either fight that potential threat, or flee the scene. However, over prolonged periods of stress, your body starts to encounter problems. 

Cortisol and Adrenaline, over time, can cause increased blood pressure, muscle tension, and inflammatory responses. Your muscles can remain tight and overworked, which will lead you to experiencing neck pain related to chronic tightness and inflammation.  

If you are working in an office environment, your chronic neck pain can be exacerbated by sitting at a desk for prolonged periods of time. If you are working on a computer, hunched over, you are causing undue straining around the neck muscles. Paired with stress, you can make your neck pain worse, and increase pain down your back. 

How Does Stress Affect Existing Neck Pain?

One of the common sources of neck pain I see is pain from the cervical facet joints. Facet joints are the tiny joints along the back of your spine. With added stress, the pain from these joints can worsen and can develop arthritis and inflammation. You could also experience muscle spasms, headaches,  and soreness around the neck.  Over an extended period of time this can restrict your ability to move or to relax; and could have disruptions on your sleep. 

There are injections for these types of pain called facet joint injections or medial branch blocks; however these do not tackle the stress you may be experiencing. It is good to approach existing neck pain by seeing a pain doctor, seeking physical therapy, and / or rehab. But it is also important to stay active and work on what may be causing you prolonged periods of stress.

How Can You Relax to Help Keep Pain At Bay?

When you feel pained by the tension in your neck, it may be beneficial to work on stretches to loosen the muscle tightness. You may want to try this daily or as regularly as possible to continue expanding range of motion and stretch out the tightening muscles. 

Stretches that may benefit you can be: putting your chin to your chest for 30 seconds. You can also rotate your neck so that your ear meets one shoulder, and then you can do the same for the other shoulder. Rotate your head where you are taking your chin from one side to the other. This may be a short term solution to relieving the present tension in your neck. 

Meditation has also shown to have a tremendous benefit in stress relief and there are countless books and apps that can help you get started. Some of the ones I suggest are the Calm and Headspace apps. Youtube is also a great source for meditations of all different types to help you feel calm and relaxed. 

Make time for exercise as well. The more you are active the better your muscles and joints will feel as a whole. Plus, you are increasing your strength, range of motion, and overall well being. Even if your workouts are low impact, they can make a world of difference to your body. Try going for a walk, get some exercise playing with your pets, or even try yoga. Pair that with a healthy diet where you are eating balanced meals. You also may want to add anti-inflammatory herbs to your diet, such as cumin, ginger, garlic, and turmeric; and anti-inflammatory foods such as fatty fish, berries, tomatoes, and olive oil. This can help you reduce some of the inflammation around your joints, and subsequently, release some of the pain.

If you are dealing with prolonged periods of stress, depression, and anxiety, you may want to see a counselor or a therapist to help you pinpoint your stressors and create tools to help you deal with them. There are also other forms of therapy that are non-traditional, such as art, music, and dance that can help you calm the mind and body. 

Sometimes getting enough rest or just slowing down in your daily life can be enough to relieve stress. Sometimes, we are so focused on the hustle and bustle, we end up overworking, burning out, and causing ourselves stress. Take time out of your day to implement some of these relaxation techniques; or, take a few minutes for yourself everyday to do something that you enjoy.

What activities should you avoid that can exacerbate your pain?

Avoid an increased consumption of alcohol and/or smoking. These two activities may seem to be destressors but they can actually cause more stress on your body, leading to increased neck pain,  and long term effects on your overall health.

Research has shown that nicotine can trigger anxiety and tension. For a short term release, your body develops withdrawal symptoms and cravings, which can actually cause long term stress and anxiety.  Alcohol can essentially do the same thing, and in fact, research shows that increased drinking can cause an increase in stress hormone levels. Plus, it is a depressant, so it will most likely lead to more feelings of unhappiness, not essentially “curing” the stress.

When should you consult a doctor?

If you are doing all the things mentioned to regulate your stress levels and you are still suffering from chronic neck pain; or if you do not feel that your neck pain is stress-related at all, it is time to consult your doctor. Your doctor should be able to provide you with a further evaluation that can include: checking into your medical history, providing you with a physical examination, and potentially doing some imaging studies. 

Additionally, if your pain persists over 6-8 weeks, whether stress related or not, it might be a great time to see your doctor. Your doctor will be able to provide you with the best options to relieve your neck pain, and possibly your added stress.