While the holidays are for many people an exciting and happy time, November and December can also be stressful, between the cost of gifts; balancing a heavy end-of-year workload, a longer than usual to-do list; extra social obligations; travel; and family dynamics. In fact, an American Psychiatric Association study states that stress levels increase during the holiday season for 41 percent of adults.
If you are one of the many adults who feel the pressure of this time of year, you may be noticing new aches and pains as well. Texas Orthopedics physiatrist Dr. Ai Mukai says stress can cause or aggravate neck and shoulder pain in several ways.
Increased Physical Tension
When we hold more tension than usual, our bodies get into defensive positions like making ourselves small, with rolled forward shoulders and holding the head down. This can strain the shoulder muscles and the muscles around the neck.
Mental Health Issues
Stress can trigger mental health conditions like depression and anxiety and even just mood changes. These have been linked as part of the chronic pain cycle of worse mental health leading to worse sleep and worse pain.
Stress can interfere with sleep, and not getting enough sleep can cause muscle fatigue and difficulty healing from injuries and strain.
When an increased workload causes stress, it can lead to ergonomic and postural issues. Especially for those who work at a desk, spending more time hunched over in a head craning position or head forward posture can lead to tight pectoral muscles and overuse injuries.
Is It Stress or Chronic Pain?
When stress is the reason behind neck pain and shoulder pain, the result is a general increase in tension, muscle tightness and muscle fatigue. This will cause more widespread discomfort, achiness, and a feeling of weight or pressure.
Typically, acute (sudden, intense) injuries or structural issues like herniated discs occur in a very specific pattern along the structure that is injured or irritated.
Basic wellness techniques, like meditation and spending time with those who make you feel supported, can help when stress causes neck and shoulder pain.
Don’t overlook the importance of regularly getting a good night’s sleep. Taking steps to improve your sleep hygiene, like waking up and going to bed at the same time each day and avoiding electronic devices right before bedtime, can make a huge difference in the quality of your sleep.
Exercise also is an important factor in reducing stress. Stretching and gentle aerobic activities can literally help get your blood flowing. During the holiday season, when it’s cold and gets dark earlier outside, people gravitate toward the couch, worsening stress and its effects.
Keeping tabs on your nutrition can help manage stress and resulting pain. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet, which includes limiting processed foods, can help decrease inflammation in your body.
“Stress can be a vicious cycle since low morale and energy can make it more difficult to take active steps to counter pain and strain,” Dr. Mukai explains. “But self-care can help.”
If you have questions about neck or shoulder pain or would like to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists, book online or call (512) 439-1000.