Pain Management

Examining the Correlation of Tension, Stress, and Chronic Pain

Tension throughout the body can typically be defined as a non-relaxed state of the muscles, either by being stiff, tight, flexed, or over-stretched. Over time, if the muscles experience more than usual states of tension, this can lead to various problems associated with tension. As the muscles tighten due to stress, they are removed from their relaxed state. Often times this tension is due to external factors that affect our current state of relaxation. In other words, various aspects about everyday life may cause us to experience tension on a daily basis, and some of these factors may lead to chronic tension and chronic pain. We will discuss these factors later in the article.

First, we must examine the way outside stress factors wreak havoc on the health of millions of people every day.  For instance, 43% of Adults suffer adverse health effects from stress and 75% of all visits to the doctor are stress-related ailments. Since stress in the workplace costs the American industry more than $300 billion annually, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has declared stress to be a hazard of any workplace. Stress that is persistent in an individual’s life, without proper relief, can lead to “distress.” Distress is a negative reaction to stress that can lead to physical issues such as stomach and digestion problems, headaches, high blood pressure, chest pain, and difficulty sleeping. Psychologists often believe that long periods of physical tension and pain from stress may lead to emotional disorders, severe depression, panic attacks, and other mental conditions.

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What causes stress and who is at risk?

As mentioned earlier, various factors play a role in creating tension in our bodies. Stress from a person’s environment may include their occupation, their socioeconomic status, financial problems, and everyday struggles that may feel overwhelming at times. The human body is designed to deal with stress, and some amounts of stress can be positive, such as situations in which we need to be alert. However, if we continue to deal with stress constantly without relief, it can lead to physical issues, such as tension and chronic pain.

Those who are at risk of developing tension or long-term pain are the ones who are constantly experiencing stress without being able to relax or relieve themselves of their stress factors. As we age, our responsibilities become more important and accumulating. Responsibilities for our own well-being, for others, finances, occupation, and various other duties begin to accumulate as adulthood begins. The biggest thing about these adult responsibilities is that they are a continuous concern for most. This is why there is a relation between age and tension/physical pain, as well as a relation between stress and tension/physical pain. There is also a relation between socioeconomic status and physical symptoms of tension and stress. Those in the lower-poor economic status have a much higher risk of developing tension, chronic pain, or other physical illness, than those in upper-middle to high socioeconomic status. Diet and nutrition also play a big part in keeping ourselves healthy and those in a lower economic bracket are more likely to suffer from issues of malnutrition. Add that to other stressors such as financial burdens, feeding and taking care of a family, etc. and it brings forth the perfect combination for tension, chronic pain, and physical illness to set in. This may be why conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and even mental illness are more prominent in those who are classified as having a lower economic status.

Symptoms of tension

Symptoms of stress-related tension or physical pain comes in various forms. One major form is found in our muscles. If your muscles constantly feel tight, strained, or just overall painful, and the stress factors are there, this is a pretty clear sign that you have tension built up in your muscles and body. Muscle spasms, muscle twitching, cramps, or other anomalies of the muscles are also symptoms of body tension. For those experiencing muscle tension, it may be difficult to get restful sleep or even simple relaxation. Symptoms of muscle tension may affect many (if not all) different types of muscles in our bodies and can even migrate to other random areas or groups of muscles. Areas include, but are not limited to: the head, face, mouth, neck, lower and upper back, shoulders, arms, calves, thighs, knees, chest, biceps, feet, stomach and digestive system. The pain may be persistent in one area for a while, and then randomly move to other areas of the body, or it may be constant in 1 or more areas.

How does Anxiety play a role in muscle tension?

When we are stressed or worried, our bodies perform a natural response to the stressor. The body secretes stress hormones into our blood, which creates specific physiological, psychological and emotional changes, allowing us to properly deal with the stress. You may have heard of “fight or flight,” which refers to a mental decision about the best way to handle a situation or stressful event. One of the most common responses to stress is physiological; at this point our muscles tend to tighten and contract. This is most likely due to the fact that it makes our bodies more resilient in the face of an attack. We may not be threatened in the case of physical harm, but nonetheless, during a stressful situation, for most people, a normal reaction is for the muscles to tense up. After the stressor goes away, our bodies return to a normal state. If stressful situations happen frequently and dramatically, the body may remain in a state of alertness for too long. These long-term bouts of tension and muscle tightening often lead to physical problems and pain in the muscles because the muscles become hyper-stimulated. If they remain in a state of hyper-stimulation for long periods of time, headaches, muscle pain, tension, and stiff/tight muscles may be a result.

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How does posture play a role in muscle tension? 

Other factors such as posture or the way we position our bodies for long periods of the day may play a role in the way tension develops. For those occupations that require employees to sit or stand in one place for several hours a day, workers may be at a higher risk for developing tension in their muscles. When we are very young, our posture is at it’s best (given that you did not have a condition such as scoliosis), but as we get older, posture begins to worsen. Slouching and inactivity of muscles may cause tension in certain areas, leading to even worse posture. Other physical problems caused by posture include: back pain, joint deterioration, spinal dysfunction, and rounded shoulders. If you experience symptoms such as bent knees while walking/standing, back pain, body aches or pains, muscle fatigue, headaches, or even a potbelly, these may be signs that you are using incorrect posture. There are several ways to improve your posture:

  • One is to remember to perform stretching exercises frequently (around 3-4 times a week). They don’t have to be time consuming. If it is normal for your back to start hurting after sitting for several hours, then it is a good idea to stretch your back for a few minutes before sitting down.
  • Regular exercise will also improve muscle strength and prevent muscles from becoming sore from tension. For instance, your abdominal muscles help support the back, so performing exercises like sit-ups or ab crunches can strengthen your core and keep your back from becoming sore easily.
  • Avoid standing on one foot for long periods of time.
  • Avoid crossing your legs at the ankle instead of at the knee.
  • Try to stay comfortable and focus on maintaining good posture during long periods of sitting or standing in one position.
  • Avoid sitting in soft, squishy chairs, and consider investing in an ergonomically designed chair.
  • If you use a keyboard or computer for long hours in your occupation, an ergonomic keyboard or mouse may come in useful as well. They encourage you to maintain good form, and can prevent you from falling into incorrect positions that are hard on the body.
  • Sit in chairs that have lumbar support to keep your back from tightening or the back muscles from becoming sore. Neck pillows also come in handy.
  • Make sure that your mattress supports your entire spine. This will also help to prevent soreness and pain in the muscles.
  • Make sure you use good lifting procedures and techniques when lifting heavy objects and keep good form with your legs and back to prevent injury or other physical problems.

One of the best ways to determine if you are using poor posture is to visit your doctor, chiropractor, or physical therapist to examine what you may be doing wrong. They can also give you advice about what you can do to improve your posture.

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What can I do to prevent or relieve muscle tension? 

There are several ways to prevent tension and other pains that stem from tension. If you can prevent further tension from developing, you may be able to find relief from the pain that accompanies it.

  • One of the easiest ways is to make sure that you are getting sufficient rest. For most individuals, 7.5 hours of sleep each night is recommended. This allows you to achieve around 4-5 sleep cycles each night and helps your body enter states of rest that are beneficial for recuperating the muscles in the body.
  • Diet is also very important when it comes to relieving tension in the body. It is best to focus on eating a well balanced diet with little reliance on caffeine in beverages and foods such as chocolate, coffee, tea, soda, etc. because caffeine has a way of causing stress. Consuming plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables will provide enough vitamins to help the muscles grow stronger and more resilient to tension. Fruits and vegetables that contain Vitamin A, C, and E, are especially important. Receiving enough protein in your diet is also very important for strengthening muscles. If you are a vegetarian, you need to make sure you supplement your protein levels with the right foods. If needed, a B complex vitamin will keep your iron levels stable. There is also a multitude of multivitamins on the market. By making sure that you meet certain nutritional needs for your body, you will not only strengthen your muscles but also your immune system.
  • Try not to skip meals during the day and allow yourself time to properly eat and digest your food. When you do not give your body the fuel it needs to run everyday, it can force the internal system to stress, which is directly correlated to tension developing in the body.
  • Remember to dress warm on cold days and dress light on warm days. Do not be afraid to wear layers of clothing if it is necessary for your environment. Those who spend their workdays going back and forth from cold to hot environments report more problems with muscle and joint pain, as well as overall tension in the muscles. It is important to find a way to regulate your body’s temperature because it prevents the nervous system from being overworked.
  • Try not to overdo it physically; avoid lifting excessive weight if you don’t have to.
  • As mentioned earlier in the article, exercise is one of the best ways to strengthen muscles and prevent tension from occurring. There are 3 important types of exercise: Cardiovascular, Stretching, and Strengthening.
    • Cardiovascular exercise involves exercising at 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate. Most experts agree that 8-10 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, 3 times a week is enough to keep your heart and lungs working optimally. These exercises will also improve the amount of oxygen in your blood and regulate more oxygen to your muscles, preventing excessive tension in the muscles.
    • Stretching exercises are important as they will keep the limbs and muscles limber and flexible. This will help relieve tension build-up and will also prevent muscular injuries in the future.
    • Strengthening exercises will also prevent your muscles from being overworked and becoming sore.
  • Another method to prevent tension from developing or worsening is to practice 1 (or more) techniques which help to relax and improve the quality of the nervous system. Relaxation exercises are easy and consume little of your time. They are also great for regulating the amount of tension you feel.
  • Yoga and Tai Chi are just 2 types of exercises available that teach you to relax the nervous system while gently stretching and working the muscles. When you are able to relax the nervous system, tension is released throughout the entire body.
  • Other relaxation exercises include breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness/awareness techniques, and various other forms that relax the muscles and the nervous system as well.
  • Regular visits to your chiropractor will help you identify which areas you may be experiencing tension the worst and what you can do to ease tension in the joints. A chiropractor will also be able to determine if poor posture may be the reason for the tension and pain you feel in your body.
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