Mind & Body: the relationship between stress and muscle pain - IFC Physiotherapy Singapore

We’ve all been there, a particularly long stressful day/week/month and you wake up one day with that occasional nagging back pain transformed into an agonising monster. So why when we need our bodies to just shut up and behave do they they tend to let us down?

 We all deal with and ‘hold’ stress in different ways. If you’re an adrenaline junkie you go off and do something dangerous, if you’re a worrier you lose sleep over thinking, but if you’re the kind of person (as many of us are) that hold stress in your body, it can often manifest itself as muscle tension and pain.

So how does this happen, and quite frankly, just why?!

 In times of stress our body can go all prehistoric and fall back on the old ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Increased muscle tension is an important part of this to enable us to deal with whatever demand or pressure is upon us. Noradrenaline from the sympathetic nervous system alerts the muscles to tense up in preparation for action, enabling them to act quickly in response to threat or danger. This, in theory, means you can move faster and have greater strength during an emergency.

 However these days in Singapore our stress is rarely due to an imminent attack by a sabre tooth tiger or rival tribe…

 As a result the muscle tension may remain. We adopt a guarded posture that lasts as long as we feel threatened: shoulders up, head forward, arms tensed and rounded lower back. Holding these postures for prolonged periods can result in painful muscle spasms, knot formation and tension headaches.

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Stress also means we don’t pay attention to our body's signals, this means we are more likely to sit, stand, or move in ways that can strain your already overworked muscles. Our body has over four hundred separate muscles which accounts for more than 40 percent of our body weight. Muscle fibers are designed to contract and relax indefinately to coordinate our movements. When a muscle is placed under sustained tension, for example, during peroids of emotional stress, this alternating relaxation phase does not occur meaning the muscle will eventually develop spasm and pain.

 Untreated muscle tension can lead to all sorts of horrible things such as tension headaches, back pain, and temporo-mandibular joint (jaw) pain. Chronic (long term) muscle tension pulls on the tendon, and can result in pain at the muscle-bone attachment, potentially causing tendon inflammation and tendonitis. It can also pull the body out of alignment, creating new pains and affecting the way your body moves. Finally it can also cause a deterioration in muscle health, strength, and conditioning which manifests itself as cramps in large muscle groups. 

While this tension can theoretically affect any major muscle group, the neck, shoulders and lower back are the areas we most often treat here at IFC. Some techniques that can really help are:

  •  massage: while we all know it helps to relax muscles it has also been proven to reduce stress and promote a general sense of well being.
  • relaxation techniques
  • breathing exercises to aid relaxation
  • sensible exercise 
  • treat problems that have occurred secondary to your muscle tension such as tendoitis or biomechanical issues

 As always, don’t just put up with pain and tension! Not only is it bloody horrible but can also contribute to your stress levels, turning the whole thing into a vicious cycle. Instead why not come down to the clinic for a chat and let us have a go at just making everything a little easier for you.

Keep smiling 

Annie Henderson