Stress affects just about everyone on Earth, and over time chronic stress can tear down the body, causing a cascade of malfunction in nearly every system. You’ve probably heard dire warnings from your doctor about how stress affects the cardiovascular system, or maybe you’ve experienced poor immune function and sleep disruption during stressful times, but have you ever thought about how it affects your muscles and bones? Most people who experience stress also experience aches and pains. This is because of the strain that stress puts on your musculoskeletal system. Here are three ways stress may be causing you pain and how to relieve it:

Headaches, Migraines, and Stress, Oh My!

Tense muscles commonly cause headaches and migraines. Our muscles tense in response to acute stress to protect us from pain and injury. After the immediate threat passes, the tension is supposed to ease. Acute stress happens during a frightening or threatening experience that ends quickly, for instance, when you slam on your breaks to keep from hitting a jaywalker. Your muscles tense, your heart races, and you have sweaty palms. After you’ve successfully stopped your car and used a few choice words to release your tension, you feel better and get on with your day. Our bodies handle this kind of stress very well. Unfortunately, most stress in modern times is chronic stress, a type of stress that goes on for a long time. This stress can come from work or family responsibilities or be caused by having to live with a chronic health condition or caring for an ailing family member. Chronic stress is responsible for high blood pressure, lower immune response, and a host of other nasty health consequences. It’s also what causes your muscles to be in a constant state of tension. This ongoing tightness can shift your vertebrae, throwing them out of alignment. This can interfere with nervous system function and result in chronic pain. In the case of migraines or headaches, this tension usually occurs in the neck, shoulders, or upper back. Releasing tension in these areas can improve and prevent headaches and migraines.

If you struggle with headaches or know that you carry your stress in your neck and shoulders, having these areas adjusted by a chiropractor regularly can help you feel better. Your chiropractor can also suggest home-care activities such as stretches and heat therapy, as well as lifestyle changes that may help. Often, headaches and tense shoulders are exacerbated by slouching over a computer or other device. Fixing these posture problems can help to keep you pain-free. Massage may also help relieve tense muscles and allow your chiropractor to adjust you more easily. 


Low Back Pain

Lower back pain is one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S. It can be caused by many things, including injury, posture problems, and degenerative conditions like arthritis. If you notice that your back hurts after a bad day or during a time when you’ve been swamped with stuff to do, stress might be causing your pain. Chronic stress causes tightening of the muscles down the whole length of your spine, and some people feel this as lower back pain. Lower back pain caused by something else, like an injury, can also cause stress, and the stress will worsen the pain. This is a distressing vicious cycle that can feel impossible to get out of, but there are effective treatments. 

Lower back pain caused primarily by stress can be treated and prevented with a combination of chiropractic adjustment, relaxation techniques, and lifestyle changes like better posture and more exercise. Back pain caused by disc problems, arthritis, or injury will need to be treated according to the specific underlying cause. Spinal decompression therapy is a non-invasive treatment that has proven extremely effective in treating disc problems. Arthritis and injuries may benefit from a combination of chiropractic adjustment and laser therapy- an effective treatment for inflammation that also encourages more rapid healing. If your pain is causing you significant stress and anxiety, you may find that relaxation techniques such as meditation and mindfulness therapy will reduce your pain and increase your overall sense of well-being. 

Poor Athletic Performance

Athletic activity is often pursued as a form of stress relief, but the pressure to perform well can also cause stress. Life stresses and performance pressures can cause chronic stress for athletes that drags down performance and makes recovery difficult. One of the hallmarks of chronic stress is an elevated level of a hormone called cortisol. This hormone is responsible for your body’s fight or flight response, but elevated levels over time also cause cardiovascular damage, mood problems, and tight muscles. Psychological stress, such as a demanding job or worries about an upcoming competition, can cause chronic stress and elevated cortisol. Many athletes don’t realize that physical strain can also cause an unhealthy elevation of cortisol levels. Over-training and not giving yourself enough downtime can throw the body into a toxic stress state. Symptoms of this include sleep problems, unusual fatigue, frequent illness, and lack of motivation. 

As an athlete, it’s important to listen to your body and stop before hitting the point of exhaustion. If you are feeling any symptoms of chronic stress, downtime may be called for. Your performance will benefit from taking some time off and regrouping. The tense muscles caused by chronic stress can make it harder to perform and make you more prone to injuries. Chiropractic adjustment is helpful for athletes who are trying to recover from injuries or over-training. Massage can also speed recovery. Proper warm-ups and stretches are even more important if you plan to be active while experiencing muscle tightness due to stress. These practices can mitigate your chance of injury and help to relax you. Meditation and other relaxation techniques may also be useful and help lower your cortisol levels faster so you can get back in the game.