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Ask the Doctor: Can Stress Cause Pain?

Does emotional stress play a role in the presence of pain and how we feel it?

The featured question this week deals with stress and pain:

I constantly feel stressed out, and I also have chronic neck pain. Can the two be related?

Absolutely. There may be a very physical cause of neck pain (or any other region of pain) from trauma or injury, degeneration of the joints, or stress/strain on the soft tissue. Emotional stress, however, can also play a role in the chronicity of pain.

When we get all stressed out, there are a lot of biochemical reactions that occur. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated which tells us we either fight or flee from the source of the stress. Back in the day, this would help us outrun a sabre tooth tiger.

Today, we may not be outrunning wild animals (at least in Detroit), but our body responds the same way to emotional stress, whether it be from work, school, or family. Whether we are outrunning a wild animal or dealing with our boss, the body releases stress hormones to increase the glucose and adrenaline in our blood stream to deal with the stress. The problem is when emotional stress becomes chronic - our nervous system is always in this elevated mode, and this takes a toll on all of our other major systems (immune system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, etc). 

When our body's immune system is lowered, this reduces the our ability to repair muscle tissue and keep it healthy which leads to pain. The muscles are also in a contracted state, leading to a lot of muscle aches and pain.  Think about a confrontation you've had with someone and now think about your body posture and language during that encounter.  When we are experiencing a physical confrontation, our natural inclination is to protect our chest and abdomen - think about a fighter's stance.  They round those shoulders, bring the arms up, and tighten their abdomen.  We do the same thing even with emotional stress.  This is why when we're stressed out, we may feel like our shoulders are up to our ears.  It's a protective mechanism.

So, if you are feeling very stressed out, there are some good outlets to utilize - journaling, therapy, exercise, and meditation to name a couple.  Be sure to not dismiss any physical pain as just related to stress - this should be checked out by a health care professional. 

Thanks for reading and if you'd like your question featured next week, please email me directly at QureshiDC@gmail.com.

Have a great week!

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