Can Stress Cause Shoulder Pain?

Learning how to achieve balance in our lives can be a tricky thing to master. When you’re expected to run the household, manage social activities, and carry a full load at work it can leave you with strong feelings of stress and anxiety. We live in a world where we’re expected to be “on” all the time but the added levels of stress, day after day, can have adverse effects on the body, ultimately leading to neck and shoulder pain, among other things.

It’s natural to experience small moments of stress throughout your day, but the problems start to occur when you experience stress on a consistent basis. This might be chronic physical stress from standing all day or performing repetitive motions on the job for long periods of time. Or, stress can stem from emotional difficulties like a relationship, financial, or health concerns. When stress is present on a regular basis it begins to show in the form of aches, pains, and irritated nerves. So how does this response to life’s daily challenges end up causing chronic pain in your shoulders and neck?

Can stress cause shoulder pain?

When we experience high levels of anxiety or stress, our body’s natural reaction is to tense up. When this happens consistently over a long period of time it can lead to muscle tension, which can cause stiffness, aching, and pain in your neck and shoulders. Stress-related pain in this region is typically the result of emotional or mental anxiety which can directly affect the muscles and nerves that run through your shoulders, neck, and spine.

Aside from stress, other issues that lead to sore shoulders are overuse, poor posture, long periods of sitting, incorrect or poor sleeping positions, and of course, injuries.

Why is my shoulder hurting for no reason?

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain but you can’t recall doing anything to trigger it, and you aren’t feeling regular bouts of stress, there may be something internally irritating the shoulder that you’re not aware of. Common conditions include:

  • Rotator cuff tendonitis and bursitis – a swelling of the tissues and tendons that connect the muscles and bones in the shoulder
  • Rotator cuff tear – a tear in the tissues that connect the muscle to the bone and tendons around the shoulder joint
  • Arthritis – inflammation that causes chronic pain and stiffness in the shoulder
  • Frozen shoulder – stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint that typically worsens over time
  • Tendon tear – a tear in the tissues connecting the muscle to the bone around the shoulder joint

Stretches for neck and shoulder pain

Massage, yoga, and rotator cuff physical therapy are all great ways to relieve unwanted neck and shoulder tension. In addition, we like to suggest doing a few stretches to see if you can get your muscles to relax a bit. Here are a few simple, yet effective stretches you can incorporate throughout your day.

  • Neck stretches – Lower your chin to your chest for 15 seconds and gently let the weight of your head create a stretch through your upper back. Next, gently drop your head towards the right for 15 seconds, then to the left side for 15 seconds.
  • Shoulder to ear – Sit with a straight spine and gently tilt your head towards your left shoulder. You can go a little deeper into this stretch by gently pulling your head down slightly farther with your right hand, until you feel a gentle pull. Hold this position for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
  • Shoulder rolls – While sitting or standing, maintain good posture and roll your shoulders up, back, then down. Repeat this circular motion 10 times. Then do the opposite and roll your shoulders up, forward, then down. Repeat 10 times.
  • Shoulder raises – While standing or sitting, put your arms down by your side, straighten your back, then slowly lift your shoulders up toward your ears. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lower your shoulders back down. Repeat this action 5 times.
  • Cross arm stretch – Bring your right arm across your chest and bring your left hand up to support it by slightly pushing your right arm into your chest to get a deeper, yet gentle stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
  • Forward bend – Stand up straight with your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart. Interlace your hands behind your back. You should feel a gentle pull in your chest. With a slight bend in the knees fold forward, hinging at the hips, and bring your arms up towards the ceiling. Make sure there is no tension or discomfort in your neck by allowing your head to hang down freely. Continue to hold this stretch for 60 seconds.
  • Meditation – Giving yourself a mental break can help relax your neck and shoulder muscles. Sit quietly with your eyes closed for 5-10 minutes. Try listening to a guided meditation or just simply allow your mind to be still. It may take some practice, but try working your way up to meditating for 10-20 minutes each day to help reduce chronic stress levels.
  • Move your body – Cardio and aerobic exercises can engage the muscles in your neck and shoulders which will increase the blood supply, stretch the muscles, and release toxins.

Healthy habits to help reduce stress

While we’ll never be able to eliminate stress from our lives completely, there are healthy habits we can incorporate on a daily basis to help reduce stress levels.

  • Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet
  • Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days per week
  • Reduce caffeine, alcohol, and sugar intake
  • Get enough sleep each night
  • Avoid cigarettes and drugs
  • Think positively and surround yourself with positive people

Can physical therapy help with stress related shoulder pain?

There’s a multitude of evidence to support the effectiveness of physical therapy when it comes to reducing shoulder pain and decreased range of motion. Physical therapy treatment options for shoulder pain include manual therapy, joint mobilization, therapeutic exercises, stretching, therapeutic ultrasound, laser therapy, and modalities such as electrical stimulation/TENS, heat or ice.

Physical therapy can be a safe and effective option for managing the effects of severe stress. If your stress-induced shoulder and neck pain lasts for more than a few weeks, give us a call or request an appointment to discuss potential treatment options.

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