Is stress causing your neck pain? Simple ways to ease the tension

Back & Neck

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jan 16, 2024

Stress is an inescapable aspect of modern life, and it can manifest in numerous physical forms, including neck pain. If you’re living with stress-related neck pain, there are steps you can take to prevent discomfort and strategies to help you find relief. Here’s what you need to know.

The connection between stress and neck pain

Neck pain refers to any discomfort occurring in the area from the base of your skull to your shoulders. The pain can range from a mild ache to an intense, sharp sensation.

The relationship between stress and neck pain is a close one. When you're under stress, it triggers your body's fight or flight response, leading to the release of various hormones. These hormones cause our muscles, including those in our neck, to tense up as a protective measure.

Problems arise when the source of stress persists for a long time, causing the muscle tension to become chronic. This constant tension in the neck muscles can lead to feelings of stiffness, discomfort, and in many cases, pain.

Jesse Cooper, DC, a chiropractor at Baylor Scott & White Clinic - Round Rock 300 University, said he often sees patients dealing with neck pain caused by stress.

“Imagine holding a bowling ball with both hands out in front of your body,” he said. “Gradually, you will experience muscle fatigue, pain and poor form as a result of the weight of the ball being so far in front of your body versus holding it closer. It’s the same concept with poor posture due to stress, except your head is the bowling ball and the rest of the muscles in your body are fighting to hold you upright. This can be a difficult cycle to break.”

Clearly, stress is not just an emotion—it’s something that physically impacts your body. There are several ways stress can physically affect your neck. These include:

  • Muscle tension: Stress can cause your neck muscles to tighten up, leading to a feeling of stiffness or pain. This is often worsened by maintaining the same position for extended periods, such as while working on a computer.
  • Headaches: Stress can also result in tension headaches, which are often felt in the neck. These headaches can exacerbate the feeling of neck pain.
  • Worsening existing conditions: If you already have a condition that causes neck pain, such as osteoarthritis or poor posture, stress can make the pain feel worse.

While stress can contribute to neck pain, it’s important to remember that it’s usually not the sole cause. Other factors, such as poor posture, sedentary lifestyle and underlying health conditions can also contribute to neck pain.

Preventing and relieving stress-related neck pain

While it's not always possible to eliminate stress from our lives, there are steps we can take to manage stress and minimize its impact on our necks.

Physical strategies

There are multiple physical strategies you can employ to both prevent and treat stress-related neck pain. These are simple steps that you can implement at home and on your own.

  • Maintain good posture: Keeping your head centered over your spine can help prevent neck pain. When using devices like computers or smartphones, try to hold them at eye level to avoid straining your neck.
  • Stay active: Regular physical activity can help reduce muscle tension and promote overall well-being. Consider exercises like yoga or Tai Chi, which are known for their stress-reducing benefits.
  • Stretch and strengthen your neck muscles: Regularly performing neck stretches and strength exercises can help mitigate muscle tension and improve your neck's range of motion.
  • Breathing exercises: Engaging in breathing exercises can help release tension in your diaphragm and neck, as well as help your body and mind relax.
  • Take frequent breaks: If you're working for long hours at a desk or driving for extended periods, take regular breaks to move around and stretch your neck and shoulders.
  • Take a bath: Run a warm bath and add some Epsom salt to the bath. Soaking in a tub for 15-30 minutes is a great way to relieve both physical and mental stress in your body.
  • Get a massage: Massage therapy can help release tension in your neck muscles and provide relief from stress-related neck pain.

Mental and emotional strategies

When it comes to managing stress levels, it’s important to make time for you. Here are a few simple ways to prioritize your mental health and keep stress from impacting your body.

  • Practice stress management techniques: Techniques such as meditation and deep breathing can help calm your mind, reduce stress and lessen its physical effects.
  • Seek support: Talk to family members, friends or a mental health professional about the stress you're experiencing. They can provide emotional support, advice and potential solutions.
  • Prioritize your health: Remember that your health is important. Don’t let stress take a toll on it. Focus on what’s most important and let go of inconsequential things. Make time for a few minutes of regular self-care.

What to do if you have neck pain from stress

If your neck pain persists for more than a few days, or if it's severe or accompanied by other symptoms (such as numbness or weakness in your arms or hands), it's important to seek medical attention. Your healthcare provider can help diagnose any underlying conditions that may be contributing to your pain and suggest appropriate treatments.

While stress can lead to neck pain, there are many strategies you can employ to manage stress and alleviate its physical effects. Remember, it's important to take care of both your mental and physical health. If you're struggling with stress-related neck pain, don't hesitate to seek help. Talk to your doctor or find one near you today.

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