How Stress Causes Neck Pain
If you suffer from chronic neck pain, particularly alongside headaches, and with no apparent physical cause it may be that your stress level is to blame. Stress in daily life, from pressure at work, school, or home, can cause tension in the neck muscles, which leads to fatigue, cramping, stiffness in the neck, and neck pain.
When we are under stress we unconsciously tense our muscles as if in preparation to run away from our stressor, but oftentimes the stressful stimuli we encounter are not able to be run away from and so the stress has no outlet and there is no corresponding relaxation once we feel the ‘threat’ is over. In modern society where we could, if we read every newspaper and watched every news report, consider our lives to be in imminent danger, it is hardly surprising that doctors are reporting more incidences of chronic stress-related neck pain than ever before. Even major health institutions are warning us not to take work home with us and to learn to ignore the smartphone that may be causing our neck pain and back problems.
The vast majority of neck pain is due to tension in the muscles supporting the head. This can lead to not only pain in the neck, but also jaw pain, shoulder and back pain, and headaches. Stress is also a factor in weight gain and obesity, which in itself can make pain worse by risking an increase in inflammation and by putting more pressure on the body’s musculoskeletal system. Stress may also be implicated in the development of conditions such as lupus, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome, all of which can lead to neck pain; this may be due to the fact that long-term stress downgrades the immune system.
Unhealthy Quick Fixes
Those who are under stress also often resort to unhealthy ‘quick-fixes’ such as alcohol, drugs, or smoking. Using over-the-counter analgesics and anti-inflammatories can also lead to a rebound effect, creating withdrawal symptoms and leading people to take more and more of the medication. Caffeine, which may also be present in some headache pills, can have a similar effect on tension and stress, with withdrawal presenting a problem for many who try to go cold-turkey. Poor dietary choices may also be made due to time constraints and little inclination to cook healthy foods. These factors all contribute further to poor nutrition, which can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as magnesium, B vitamins, and other nutrients key in muscle activity, energy, and how your body deals with stress.
Long Term Stress
Prolonged tense muscles can also compromise circulation, and put pressure on the nerves in the neck or brachial plexus. If circulation is reduced to an area, through blood vessel constriction, then this can adversely affect nutrient and oxygen delivery to cells, making them more prone to damage and death. Stress in itself can cause a reduction in blood supply to peripheral limbs, which can create tension in the muscles. This is because the body is preparing itself for any injury and attempting to reduce potential blood losses from such injury. Emotional and psychological stress creates a very similar reaction to a physical stressor, such as a charging bull, or a pride of lions running towards you. Your boss shortening your deadline, or arguments over whose turn it is to drive the kids to soccer may be the cause of your neck pain, and are harder to avoid than, say, animals on the African plains.
Neck Pain Stress Triggers
Emotional stressors are not the only stressors, however. Chemical stress, through environmental pollutants, additives in food, allergens, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, can cause tension in the body, inflammatory reactions, and nutrient deficiencies leading to neck pain. Problems with posture, sleep, gait, and exercise or sports injuries where persistent strain or improper movements create imbalances in muscle tone, can all contribute to physical stress and neck pain.
Stress in the neck muscles can adversely affect the way we move the rest of our body and, in the long-term, lead to persistent muscle tone imbalance and altered posture which creates a higher risk for degenerative spinal problems. It takes only a slight adjustment in the neck musculature to create major problems. The average human head weighs 10-20lbs, and as it is supported by your neck muscles it can be compared to a bowling ball balanced on your fingertips (or a melon on some spaghetti if you’re feeling a little more culinary). If you have chronic neck pain you should always make sure you get it checked out as, even if you are stressed, there may be an underlying physical issue that can be corrected.
If chronic emotional stress is a problem, and you think it is the cause of your neck pain then a therapy such as the Alexander Technique may be helpful where postural problems and emotional disturbances can be addressed. Controlling the emotions, regulating breathing, and re-educating the body to handle stressful situations a little better are all included in this type of therapy making it ideal for those with stress-related neck pain. Similarly, counselling, mindfulness training, cognitive behavioural therapy, or even granting yourself a relaxing massage or hot, soothing bath can all help you learn to relax and get rid of that pain in the neck.