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Stressed out? It could be contributing to your pain.

Stress can occur for many reasons: from relationship or financial struggles to lack of sleep or anxiety. Being stressed out can cause tension and, ultimately, pain. Fortunately, you can effectively manage slight-to-moderate stress-related pain.

How does stress lead to pain?

When people experience stress, the body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline initiates the “fight or flight” response that leads to increased blood supply and tightened muscles in preparation for reacting to the stressor. Cortisol shuts down systems that aren’t essential for fight or flight, such as the digestive and reproductive systems.

Once danger passes, the body typically resumes normal operation. But if you regularly feel stressed out, overexposure to adrenaline and cortisol can lead to muscle tension, aches and spasms.

Over time, stress also impacts the nervous system . When the brain receives frequent pain signals, it can begin to process pain even when there are fewer stimuli. In other words, the body becomes more sensitive to pain, not less.

Where do you feel stress-related pain?

Tight muscles resulting from stress commonly occur in these areas:

  • Low, mid and upper back
  • Neck and shoulders
  • Jaw and forehead

Stress can also impact the digestive system, with people commonly experiencing:

  • Stomach pain
  • Acid reflux
  • Diarrhea or constipation

How to break the cycle of stress-related pain

Since the body becomes more sensitive to pain with increased exposure, you will likely find pain relief when you address the stressors at the root of the pain:

Lifestyle changes to reduce stress

Lifestyle changes can make a big impact on reducing stress and its effects, for example:

  • Exercise: Regular exercise can improve flexibility, relieve muscle tension and strengthen muscles. Increased blood flow after exercising can boost your mood and help you sleep better.
  • Sleep: Exercise is just one way to improve sleep quality. Sleep hygiene is another way to stave off insomnia and poor quality sleep.
  • Diet: Some foods can promote muscle tension. You may find you feel better when you avoid dairy, gluten and sugar. If you experience anxiety, your doctor may recommend limiting caffeine and alcohol.
  • Relaxation strategies: Meditation, yoga, massage and finding time for hobbies are ways to help manage stress and relieve pain in the process.

Professional support to reduce stress

Your provider may also recommend you work with a mental health specialist who might suggest:

  • Medications: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are all options to help manage both mood and pain.
  • Counseling: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) works by helping you identify and change your thinking and behavior patterns. You learn valuable skills to reduce the stress that leads to pain.

UCLA Health Behavioral Health Associates works closely with your primary care provider to help you reduce the stress and anxiety that feed pain. You may also benefit from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.


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