There’s no question that tension and stress can manifest itself in the body. Whether it’s a headache or tight muscles, psychological factors can take a toll on our physical body.
One of the most common sites in the body where the effects of stress can be felt is the neck. From the base of the skull to the top of your shoulders, your neck can become a center of pain and tension as stress and worries build.
How stress triggers pain
Stress-induced neck pain is defined as pain that is either triggered or worsened by psychological or emotional factors. For example, the initial neck pain may be caused by an injury that strains the muscles in the neck, but the pain continues for days or weeks afterward as stress caused by the injury or other factors builds—maybe even long after the muscle tissue has healed from the initial accident.
That’s not to say that stress-induced neck pain is “all in your head”—the pain and symptoms are very real. It’s just that the causes are not physical in nature.
Some experts think that stress-induced neck pain is caused by a physical factor: namely, a low but constant level of activity in the trapezius muscles that stretch from the back of neck out to the upper shoulders. However, studies found no correlation between neck pain and muscle activity.1 The only positive connection was between neck pain and perceived tension/stress.2
6 tips to tackle stress-induced neck pain
By focusing on ways to treat both the mind and the body, you can help lessen stress and the toll it can take on you. Try these methods to manage stress-induced neck pain:
- Neck stretches
If done regularly, stretching exercises for the neck can loosen muscle tightness and maintain or expand range of motion for the neck. Try these 2 stretches to get started.
- Therapy or support group
Cognitive behavioral therapy has proven benefits for helping to develop healthy thought patterns, but even a support group or online forum where you can share your concerns and receive support can help you manage day-to-day stressors.
Visit our very active Spine-health Forum to find online support.
Practicing meditation is a good way to calm your thoughts and anxieties. Look for a guided meditation video on YouTube or attend a class to learn how.
- Enlisting help from family and friends
You don’t have to tackle stress alone; let your family and friends help carry the load. Be clear about ways they can help you—ask if a friend can run an errand for you, or assign your children extra chores around the house during stressful periods.
Massage is not only relaxing and stress-relieving overall, but it can specifically ease the tightness of the muscles of the neck and shoulders.
Exercise is good for your body and mind. It releases endorphins, a hormone that dulls pain and generates feelings of well-being.
You’re not a superhero—let inconsequential things go if they’re taking a toll on your health. Focus on what’s most important and don’t worry if things further down the priority list get delayed or undone for a while.
If your stress-induced neck pain is not relieved by a week or two of self-care, see your doctor. He or she can offer other treatment option and diagnose possible underlying conditions.
- Trapezius muscle activity as a risk indicator for shoulder and neck pain in female service workers with low biomechanical exposure. Ergonomics. 2001 Feb 20;44(3):339-53.
- The effect of pain reduction on perceived tension and EMG-recorded trapezius muscle activity in workers with shoulder and neck pain. Scand J Rehabil Med. 1995 Dec;27(4):243-52.