The Truth Behind Stress-Related Neck Pain
Millions of Americans suffer from high levels of stress due to heavy demands at work, at school, in relationships and at home. While stress typically starts out as mental and emotional stress, it quickly takes on a physical component, resulting in muscle tension in the body. For many Americans, this muscle tension is often felt as a stiff, uncomfortable and sometimes painful neck.
According to medical experts, the source of stress-related neck pain lies in the brain. When you feel under pressure, this triggers the release of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that prepare your body for action. These hormones make your muscles tense up, which can irritate nerves and cause muscles to ache and feel stiff. When your muscles tense, the blood supply to the muscles decreases, causing pain. And that pain causes the muscles to tense further.
On top of the mental and emotional stress that can cause neck pain, neck pain can also start with improper postural habits like squeezing the phone between your shoulder and ear or jutting your head forward when working on the computer.
"It's keeping your head in an awkward position—that is, pushed forward with your ears in front of your shoulders—for a long time that makes your neck hurt," says Joanne Griffin, senior physical therapist and inpatient headache treatment therapist at the New England Center for Headache at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut.
The best way to relieve stress-related neck pain is to try to eliminate or ease the mental, emotional and/or physical stress in your life (in addition to caring for and treating the muscles in and around the neck).
Tips to Eliminate Physical Stress
Good posture. Whether you are standing, walking, sitting or sleeping, the best position for your neck is to have your ears aligned over your shoulders. While working on the computer, avoid slouching or jutting your head forward. Sit with your back straight and your lower back supported. Adjust your computer monitor so that the top of the screen is at eye level. Use a document holder that puts your work at the same level as the screen.
Use a headset or speakerphone. When you talk on the phone, do not cradle the phone at your shoulder. Instead use a headset or speakerphone.
Avoid prolonged computer use. In today's world, that might sound impossible. However, taking breaks will go a long way toward preventing stress-related neck pain. Take frequent stretch breaks to loosen up tight neck or back muscles, get up for a short walk around the office, or fill up your water glass every 30-45 mins.
Adjust your car seat. Make sure that you are not reaching for the steering wheel while driving. Your arms should be in a slightly flexed and in a comfortable position. Adjust your seat to an upright position that supports your head and lower back, and remember that the stress-free position for your neck is to have your ears aligned over your shoulders.
Neck Stretches to Relieve Stress-Related Neck Pain
Exercise 1: Sit or stand straight and tall and look straight ahead. Slowly tuck your chin toward your chest, interlace your fingers behind your head and apply gentle forward pressure. Hold this position and take five deep breaths, feeling the stretch at the back of your neck. Then lift your head back to center so that your ears align over your shoulders. Relax and breathe naturally for at least 10 seconds.
Next, take your right hand and place it over at the left side of your head. Gently guide your right ear toward your right shoulder with the help of your right hand. Take five deep breaths, feeling the stretch in the left side of your neck. Gently press your head back to center. Breathe naturally for at least 10 seconds, and then move to other side, feeling the stretch in the right side of the neck. Finish by bringing your head to center and breathing naturally for at least 10 seconds.
Exercise 2: Take a deep breath and raise your arms above your head. Interlace your fingers with your palms facing down toward your head. Align your neck so that your ears are over your shoulders. Take 5 long deep breaths, feeling the stretch in your upper back and shoulders. Release your arms and relax. Breathe naturally for at least 10 seconds. Repeat exercise three to five more times.
Exercise 3: Take a deep breath and raise your arms above your head, then release your arms down and interlace your fingers behind your back. You will feel your shoulder blades glide closer together and feel your shoulders and chest stretch open. Align your neck so that your ears are over your shoulders. Hold for five long deep breaths. Then relax for at least 10 seconds and breathe naturally. Repeat exercise 3-5 times.
Note: Chronic neck pain may result in increased irritability, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and poor quality of life. If not treated, chronic neck pain can even lead to depression. If you feel that you are not experiencing relief from neck pain and/or feel at risk for depression, contact your doctor to discuss other treatment options.
Erstad, S. Neck Pain - Prevention. Yahoo Health. August 21, 2008. http://health.yahoo.com/pain-prevention/neck-pain-prevention/healthwise--tr1150.html. Accessed January 2, 2010.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress Symptoms: Effects on your body, feelings and behavior. MayoClinic.com. gt;http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-symptoms/SR00008_D. Accessed January 2, 2010.
Neck Pain. MotherNature.com. http://www.mothernature.com/Library/Bookshelf/Books/47/98.cfm. Accessed January 2, 2010.
Spinasanta, S. Tame Stress to Reduce Neck and Back Pain. Spine Universe. August 18, 2008. http://www.spineuniverse.com/displayarticle.php/article1706.html. Accessed January 2, 2010.
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