Skip to main content

Let’s face it. Stress can hurt. A sudden onset or prolonged periods of stress can cause muscle tension and pain, or other associated pain such as headaches brought on by muscle tension in the nearby areas of the shoulders, neck and head. But why does stress cause muscle pain and tension and what can you do about it?

“When stress levels are high, our brain sends a signal to the nerves to go into ‘protection mode,’ and our nerves activate our muscles to tighten and increase their tone,” says David Munson, a rehabilitation therapist with TriHealth Corporate Health, who is board certified in professional ergonomics. “This can cause pain because when muscles are tense, the circulation is decreased, causing a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. It’s similar to feeling soreness the day after strenuous exercise such as weightlifting.”

David also points out that in addition to emotional stress, the physical stress brought on in many work environments by maintaining a prolonged position without movement, by poor posture or by singular repetitive movements can cause similar problems. So what can you do to reduce stress-related pain and tension?

“The first thing to remember is that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have overly tight muscles which require aggressive stretching,” David says. “But it is a sign that you would benefit from changing your activities to decrease the threat on the nervous system, and there are some easy ways to help your body deal with the impact of stress.”

Simple Solutions

  • Move more! (every hour for a minimum of three minutes)
  • Ergonomic modifications
  • Meditation (10-30 minutes before bed can improve sleep quality)
  • Exercise (can reduce pain and tension)
  • Gentle stretching (to reduce tone)
  • Isolated light strengthening

General Stretching Guidelines

  • Warm-up: Preferably, three to five minutes of gentle rhythmic movement, such as walking or marching in place. This increases circulation and core muscle temperature.
  • Stretch only to the point of gentle tension. Ease into the stretch as you feel your muscle relax. You should never feel pain when you stretch.
  • Hold the stretch in a comfortable position; the feeling of tension should subside as you hold the stretch. Do not bounce.
  • Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds.
  • Feel the stretch. If the tension becomes greater as you stretch, you are overstretching. Ease off into a more comfortable position.
  • Breathe slowly and naturally. Do not hold your breath.

David says it’s important for you to consult with your physician before beginning any exercise program, especially if you’ve had any recent physical problems, musculoskeletal or other pertinent history (or if you’re not sure) or have experienced any pain. How to reduce stress related pain and tension