There are a myriad of ways that stress wreaks havoc on our bodies. From digestive issues — such as occasional stomach aches and irritable bowel syndrome — to sleepless nights, it seems that stress has the power to turn our lives upside down. So it comes as no surprise to learn that stress can cause physical pain in random places throughout the body, such as our shoulders.
To find out more about how stress can cause shoulder pain, and what exactly you can do to help prevent or alleviate it, POPSUGAR spoke to two experts for more insight.
How Does Stress Cause Shoulder Pain?
As it turns out, not all stress affects the body in the same way. "Stress in itself is not the issue," explained Dr. Naresh Rao, DO, FAOASM, partner at Sports Medicine at Chelsea and head physician of the USA Men's National Water Polo Team. "True stress or 'eu-stress' is a good thing." Dr. Rao explained that it is actually excessive stress (the kind that goes beyond what you may have the capacity to handle) and the way you perceive an external or internal trigger that has the ability to wreak havoc on the body. "Once the mind perceives excessive stress, the mind-body connection can create somatic, or physical, pain," Dr. Rao added, explaining that this imbalance commonly presents itself as shoulder and neck pain.
Dr. Rafael E. Salazar II, MHS, OTR/L, CEO and president of ProActive Rehabilitation and Wellness, also added that cortisol — a stress hormone made by the body — may be one of the culprits in causing aches and pains in different parts of the body, such as the shoulders. According to research, prolonged cortisol responses by the body could result in cortisol dysfunction. Cortisol dysfunction, in turn, acts as the catalyst for inflammation, which has the ability to cause even more inflammation, pain, and even depression.
"We are made up of the biological part, sure, but we also have emotional, psychological, and environmental or social factors that affect each of us differently," said Dr. Salazar. "Taking a biopsychosocial approach to healthcare where we're looking at all factors, not just muscles and tissues, helps us to better understand what may be causing shoulder pain." Dr. Salazar also added that the relationship between chronic pain and stress is close — when our anxiety and stress increases, our awareness of pain does as well.
How Can I Alleviate or Prevent Stress-Induced Shoulder Pain?
Thankfully there are ways to free yourself from stress-induced shoulder pain if you are experiencing it firsthand. An important thing to keep in mind while trying to treat stress-induced pain is to do so by digging deep down and treating the root cause: stress. Dr. Salazar recommended doing this by learning effective coping mechanisms and calming strategies to help keep stress at bay. "Sure, you can use physical agent modalities like heat and e-stim; and even manual therapy like massage," said Dr. Salazar, "but unless you are addressing the root cause — stress — you will continue to experience elevated pain and limited function."
Dr. Rao also advised consulting an osteopathic physician who is trained in a whole-person approach. He suggested adding meditation and exercise into your regimen and avoiding pro-inflammatory foods to help treat stress-induced pain in a more direct way. "Yoga is a great way to try to restore the body as well," shared Dr. Rao.