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stress neck | neck pain from fright | neck pain

Neck pain and stress can be a real issue

There’s a reason why so many people hold their stress in their neck and shoulders. A whole anatomical reason! Yes, neck pain and stress are related to each other because of the physical response that gets created when we have a stressful moment. This could be sudden or from a prolonged stressful trigger.

Think about a time when you had a big fright. Maybe something scary jumps out at you, like a spider…

How does your body react to stressful times?

We cave our chest in as we throw our hands up (maybe with a little scream at the sight of said spider?). Our shoulders squish up to our ears and our chins jut out. The back of our skull compressed as does our neck.

This is a normal response to fear and stress- its part of the fight/ flight response that our bodies are hard wired with to protect us from threats (or spiders).

But I didn’t have a fright so how is this relevant?

The thing is, this is the exact response every time we have ANY stress. The same response we have when there’s traffic when we’re late. The same response we have when we have deadlines at work. And when we’re all stressed about an impending pandemic…

Many people live in this state all the time, and they think this is their normal. But it’s just your system in a constant state of fight or flight. No wonder so many people have sore necks!

What does stress-related neck pain feel like?

  • Pain with movements of the head and neck
  • Restriction and stiffness with movements of the head and neck (when something feels a bit stuck and you can’t execute the full action)
  • Tenderness in the neck and shoulder muscles
  • Aching at the back of the neck

These symptoms are not exclusive to stress-related neck pain and can be experienced by people who have neck pain due to other causes too! So how do you know stress if causing your pain?

This is a great question! Although it might be as simple as checking in with your current stress levels, there are also other structures that our osteos can assess, which may indicate that your body is being affected by stress!

Which structures might be directly causing stress-related neck pain?

  • As we mentioned earlier, people tend to hold their shoulders up and jut their chins out when they get a fright or are stressed. Holding this position for a long time can cause tension in the muscles which produce these actions. These include muscles such as the upper traps, levator scapulae, suboccipital muscles, splenius capitus and splenius cervicis. When these muscles are tight, they can directly contribute to your neck pain!
  • The facet joints in the cervical spine (neck) may have increased pressure placed on them due to the poor posture that is created in our neck and shoulders in response to stress. This may produce an aching pain in the neck, that may be exaggerated by looking upwards.

Which structures might be indirectly causing stress-related neck pain?

  • The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the joint between your jaw and one of the bones of your skull. When we are stressed, lots of people find that they clench they’re jaw throughout the day (and even while they’re sleeping)! This repetitive clenching can lead to tension in the muscles surrounding the jaw, some of which also run through the neck. Therefore, we can get indirect neck pain from the way our TMJ is affected by stress!
  • The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle that sits at the bottom of the rib cage and is the primary muscle we use for breathing. When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for our fight or flight response) is activated, which can cause us to take faster, shallower breaths. This can lead to us not using our diaphragm effectively and breathing into our chest instead of our belly, using our neck and shoulder muscles to assist us. This overuse of our accessory breathing muscles in the neck can eventually cause tension in these muscles, which can contribute to neck pain!

How can I reduce my stress-related neck pain?

Breathing exercises that focus on proper belly breathing can be super helpful in calming our nervous system and training ourselves to use our diaphragm effectively to reduce use of accessory breathing muscles. This can reduce our stress levels, and any neck pain that is being caused by chest breathing as a result of stress.

Although these exercises and osteo treatments are great ways to reduce stress-related pain in our bodies, the best way to help is to limit the stress itself! You may find that things such as regular exercise, meditation and journaling can help limit your stress levels and therefore reduce your neck pain!

What can you do to help yourself during times of great stress?

Well, we want to basically retrain our system to feel comfortable again in the complete opposite movement to above! So even if you are sitting there at your desk, you can:

  • Make a conscious effort to take a deep breath in and out to re set your system.
  • Make sure your rib cage and your skull are stacked on top of each other
  • Gently lengthen through your neck lifting the back of your skull higher than your chin and give yourself a double chin
  • Gently lift your chest up and out, letting your guts go (which lessens the tension through your whole abdomen)
  • Take a breath here and let everything relax. Repeat this 5 times.

How can osteo help my neck pain?

Our osteos can assess all the structures of the body listed above, to determine if your neck pain is occurring as a result of stress! They can then apply manual techniques which can loosen tight muscles in the neck and jaw area or the diaphragm, and improve restrictions in the TMJ or cervical spine. They can also provide you with exercises and stretches to minimise your symptoms and get the area moving better! 

Let’s get you moving better for YOU!

Cog | Anatomy in Motion | Canterbury

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