Mental stress can be a cause of physical pain

How stress can manifest as physical pain

Ahhh, stress. It’s the scourge of modern society – no one ever really escapes from stress; we all experience it from time to time and in varying degrees.

We often hear that stress can influence not just our mental wellbeing but also our physical wellbeing. I bet you’ve complained about a tight neck or headache to have someone suggest it might be associated with stress.

The motivation for me to write this post is actually that my colleague kindly gave me a quick 10-minute osteopathy session for some symptomatic relief and exclaimed with wide eyes after noticing my scrunched up posture, “Claire – what’s going on here!? This isn’t like you – are you stressed?”

That got me thinking. Am I stressed? I’ve been really busy at work. I’ve been worried about a few people who are close to me. I’ve had some very difficult patient cases recently. I have my wedding coming up… So, yeah, I think I’m stressed. I’ve actually noticed a few palpitations recently and have had trouble getting to sleep. It’s also not like me to be sore – and I don’t just mean niggly, I mean ACHEY. ALL OVER.

So how does stress cause pain?

There’s a few hypotheses in answer to this question, and I daresay they all contribute to a certain extent.

Before we go on, it’s important to understand this: pain is in the brain. Always. No exceptions.

Pain is your brain’s response to information that is fed to it from your body and mind. Pain does not, and can not, exist, until your brain decides to make it exist.

It's important to understand this: pain is in the brain. Always. No exceptions.

In other words, if you have cut your hand, nerves will take messages from your hand to your brain saying, “Hey – I think something is wrong here. It might be dangerous. You’re like, bleeding and stuff. I think you should do something to get your hand away from this potentially dangerous situation.” So your brain makes it hurt, to alert you to the potential danger and make you move.

The problem with this is that it’s always just a “best guess” scenario. Also, your brain compares the sensation in your hand to other memories and situations plus takes stock of your emotions at the time, hormone levels, etc, before it decides what to do.

This means that pain ain’t always (read: is almost never) an accurate representation of danger or damage.

How does this relate to stress?

First, we know that emotions and fears can influence the production of pain. I don’t know about you, but when I’m stressed I’m certainly emotional and a tiny bit fearful.

Second, stress affects our our hormones. Hormones are chemicals that our body makes which cause certain things to happen around the place.

When you’re stressed, you secrete a hormone called cortisol. I’m plagiarising an example from my colleague Dr Bill Adamson when he wrote on the topic, but I don’t care. I like it. Just call me Melania.

Nowadays we don’t get chased by lions. We get chased by deadlines.

When we were cavemen, stress was actually a good thing. You see, cortisol and adrenalin cause your heart rate to increase, your breathing to increase, eyes to dilate and blood to rush to your extremities. This is particularly useful if you need to be incredibly alert and fast to run away from that lion chasing you down. In a situation like this, we humans would have had a massive dump of cortisol into our blood.

Nowadays we don’t get chased by lions. We get chased by deadlines.

The stress that we have these days is constant rather than intermittent. This causes a constant drip feed of cortisol into our blood, with spikes during times of increasing pressure.

The problem with cortisol is that it is speculated to increase neuroinflammation – ie, to inflame and irritate our nerves. This can certainly cause pain.

Cortisol levels also contribute to the amount of pain that your brain “creates”.

I said there was a third reason that stress can cause pain. It’s fairly simple: posture.

When we’re stressed, we tend to chain ourselves to our desk, without breaks. We slouch, we hunch, we grind our teeth. We scrunch our shoulders up around our ears. We breathe shallowly.

All of these things can fatigue certain muscle groups (I’m looking at you, tops of shoulders) and cause that annoying, niggly, achey pain that we know all too well.

Keep an eye out for my next blog on how to combat the pain associated with stress in a few easy steps!

Keep well,

Claire Richardson

Claire Richardson

Dr Claire Richardson loves what osteopathy offers her patients and how it can help people of all different ages and backgrounds. Claire treats a wide range of patients, from the young through to the elderly, including office workers, athletes, pregnant women and tradesmen. Claire enjoys treating all musculoskeletal ailments, from sports injuries to postural problems. She employs a wide variety of techniques in her treatment, including soft tissue massage, dry needling, and joint and muscle manipulation where appropriate. As part of her treatments, Claire advises on contributing lifestyle factors such as activity and diet which enables her patients to have an optimal and speedy recovery.

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