Stress Management and Neck Pain
Since stress plays a role in neck pain, it stands to reason that if you control the stress, you reduce the pain. Learn why stress management is not as hard to achieve as it sounds.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Most of us are familiar with emotional stress causing a headache. We even have a name for it — tension headache. Stress also has a physical effect on the muscles in your neck. As you tense up, the tightness in your neck muscles contributes to neck pain. Chronic neck pain can also be a cause of irritability, fatigue, and even depression that can add a lot of stress to your life. It can get to be a vicious circle.
Neck Pain: How Stress Adds to Discomfort
"Stress is not the likely cause of neck pain, but it can certainly bring out the symptoms of underlying neck pain," says Robert Gotlin, DO, director of orthopaedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
Stress has also been shown to influence how people feel pain. If you are under stress, pain can actually feel worse. "As stress goes, up I definitely see more patients with neck pain. Every year around tax time the number of patients with neck pain increases, especially among Wall Street types here in New York," observes Dr. Gotlin.
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Neck Pain: Relieving Stress
Modern treatment of neck (and back) pain puts a big emphasis on self-management, coping strategies, and a quick return to normal activities. Managing your stress is an important part of the treatment plan for neck pain. Here are some tips you can try:
Take an active role.Knowing that a rapid return to activity is often the best medicine can get you going forward with a positive outlook.
Exercise.Physical activity will get your blood flowing and your muscles moving. Neck exercises are a great way to relieve tension and an important part of the treatment for neck pain. Ask your doctor which exercises are safe for you. "The neck needs to move,” advises Gotlin. “Stretching, movement from side to side, and aerobic activity to get the blood flow going are best."
Take care of yourself.Developing healthy habits can help reduce stress, so eat a healthy diet. Avoid coffee and caffeinated beverages that can make you more agitated and interfere with sleep. And don't smoke — smoking slows healing because it decreases the blood supply to the muscles in your neck.
Learn relaxation techniques.Techniques that can reduce stress include deep breathing, yoga , meditation, and art or music therapy. Choose one you can do during the day to slow down and relax.
Get a massage.A gentle massage is a great way to relieve stress and neck pain, too, because it gets blood flowing into your sore muscles. You may want to add heat or cold to relieve tension and pain.
Talk about your stress.Develop a support system that you can turn to when you are feeling stressed out. Talking about your problems can help reduce stress. You may want to consider joining a formal in-person or online support group.
Seek treatment for serious anxiety.A study published this year in the journalBMC Musculoskeletal Disordersfound that psychosocial disorders (those caused by stressful life experiences) are closely associated with chronic neck pain. The study looked at 448 patients with neck pain and found that those patients with depression and anxiety tended to have the highest levels of neck pain, have neck pain longer, and were less likely to be active in their own recovery. If you're struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, it’s important to consider professional counseling to treat the underlying problem.
Neck Pain: Get Moving Now
Treatment of neck pain has changed over the years. We now know that in most cases the sooner you get back to full activity the better. Even if your neck still hurts a bit, it doesn't mean that neck pain is doing harm.
Studies also show that the longer your neck pain lasts, the less chance you will return to full activity. So start managing your stress and develop a positive attitude. The sooner you do, the quicker you will recover from your neck pain.
Video: Physical Therapy Treatments : Stretching to Relieve Neck & Shoulder Pain
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