Understanding Stress and Neck Pain

person with neck pain at their desk

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Stress involves physical and mental responses to pressure or threats. It can have a wide range of effects on health, including increased muscle tension that can contribute to neck pain. Neck pain is one of the most common complaints people bring to their doctor. In 2019, it occurred in 27 out of every 1,000 people.

In this article, we discuss the connection between stress and neck pain and how one condition affects the diagnosis and treatment of the other.

The Connection Between Stress and Neck Pain

Neck pain can be caused by a variety of factors, including stress. When stressed, people often tense up their muscles, including the muscles in the neck. This can lead to pain and stiffness in the neck and other areas of the body.

Stress can also affect how people process pain. Researchers believe that stress may contribute to a phenomenon known as remote hyperalgesia, which causes people to become more sensitive to pain sensations.

Psychological causes such as stress are among the most common risks associated with neck pain. Other risk factors that are frequently seen include anxiety, poor social support, and depression.

Other factors that may increase the likelihood that a person with stress may develop neck pain include:

  • Poor posture while working on a computer or using a smartphone
  • Gritting teeth
  • Car accidents or other injuries
  • Other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis

Perceived stress is linked to pain generally, and research has shown that people who report feeling higher levels of stress have a significantly higher risk of experiencing neck pain.

Complications of Stress and Neck Pain

Stress can also lead to other health problems beyond neck pain. Stress-related health problems include obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, stress can make other conditions worse and complicate the treatment process. For example, stress can increase muscle tension and interfere with the effectiveness of medications or other treatments.

Complications of neck pain can include tension headaches, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping. In severe cases, neck pain can also lead to arm tingling or weakness, changes in vision, and problems with balance.

Stress can also have detrimental effects on the treatment of neck pain. For example, if someone is coping with stress, they may be less likely to follow the doctor's instructions for treatment. They may also find it challenging to relax and may experience more pain due to muscle tension.

When to See a Doctor

If you are having neck pain, it is essential to see a doctor. The pain may be due to stress, but it may also be a symptom of another health condition. See your doctor if you have any other unusual symptoms, such as changes in vision, arm tingling or weakness, or problems with balance. These symptoms may be due to complications of neck pain or may be symptoms of a more serious condition.

Diagnosis of Stress and Neck Pain

Neck pain can be diagnosed through a physical examination and asking questions about the person's medical history. The doctor will likely ask about the intensity and duration of the pain. They will also ask about other symptoms that are present.

Your doctor might also order imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI, to help determine the cause of the neck pain. These tests can help identify any structural problems or injuries affecting the neck.

You should also talk to a healthcare practitioner if you have problems managing your stress. Stress is not a recognized mental health condition but can sometimes be linked to other conditions such as anxiety or depression.

Such conditions are diagnosed using the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5-TR). This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is utilized by doctors, psychologists, and other health professionals to diagnose mental health conditions.

Self-Test for Stress

If you are experiencing high stress levels, there are a few telltale signs that you can look out for. These include:

  • Feeling constantly overwhelmed or stressed out
  • Having problems sleeping or feeling frequently fatigued
  • Experiencing chest pain, rapid heartbeat, or dizziness
  • Feeling irritable or anxious a lot of the time

Treatment of Stress and Neck Pain

Fortunately, there are strategies people can use to help reduce stress and improve their neck pain. Some people may find relaxation techniques helpful, such as yoga or meditation. Others may find that therapy or counseling can help them manage their stress levels. If neck pain is severe, medication may be necessary.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating stress and neck pain. However, there are a few general tips that can help.

Medications

If neck pain is severe, the doctor may prescribe medications to help relieve the pain. These medications can include over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, or prescription medications, such as anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, and muscle relaxers.

When taking such medications, it is important to always follow your doctor's instructions. Do not take more than the recommended dose, which can lead to serious health problems.

Psychotherapy

Therapy and counseling can be helpful for people who are struggling to manage their stress levels. These treatments can help people learn how to cope with stress in healthy ways and improve their overall well-being.

Specific types of therapy that might be useful include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This approach involves identifying negative thought patterns that cause or worsen stress. Once a person learns to recognize these thoughts, they can learn to replace them with more positive, helpful ways of thinking and behavior.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): This approach to treatment utilizes relaxation practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and yoga to help people better cope with stress.
  • Exposure therapy: This approach, often used to treat anxiety and phobias, might be helpful if you tend to manage your stress by avoiding triggering situations. By being gradually exposed to the things that usually trigger stress, you'll get used to them over time and feel less stressed.

Coping With Stress and Neck Pain

There are a number of ways that people can reduce stress on their own. Some self-care tips that can be helpful include the following discussed below.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Get regular exercise: Exercise may improve mood and help you reduce stress levels. It can also help strengthen the muscles in the neck.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing can help reduce stress levels and muscle tension.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Eating a balanced diet can help improve overall health and reduce stress levels.
  • Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can be a major source of stress, and ensuring you are well-rested can help reduce tension and improve your ability to manage life's daily hassles.

See your doctor if you do not see any improvement in your symptoms after trying these tips. The doctor may recommend additional treatments or medications that can help relieve neck pain.

Support Groups

Support groups can be a valuable resource for people struggling to cope with stress. These groups can provide people with a safe space to share their experiences and connect with others going through the same thing. This can be helpful for people who feel alone or isolated.

Support groups can also provide practical advice and support. People in support groups can share tips on how to manage stress, deal with difficult situations, and cope with tough emotions. This can be helpful for people who are feeling overwhelmed.

Finally, support groups can provide a sense of community and connection, which is particularly important for people who are feeling lonely or isolated. It can be comforting to know that others understand what you are going through and who are there to support you.

It is important to seek help for stress and neck pain if they impact your quality of life. Working with a doctor to address both conditions can help you get relief from your symptoms and improve your overall health.

Summary

Neck pain and stress share a connection in that they are both caused by various factors that can lead to tension and inflammation. Neck pain can be caused by stress, and stress can be caused by neck pain. This leads to a vicious cycle in which the two problems feed off each other.

Treating neck pain and stress is important to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. Different ways to treat both conditions include medications, therapy, and self-care tips. Support groups can also be helpful for people who are struggling to cope with stress.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing neck pain, it is important to consider the role that stress might play in causing your symptoms. Finding effective ways to manage your stress may help relieve the muscle tension contributing to neck pain and other health problems. If you've been using stress relief strategies but haven't been able to get adequate relief, talk to your doctor. They can evaluate your condition, rule out other possible causes of your neck pain, and recommend treatments that may help.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.