Daily life comes with its ups and downs, and some days are more stressful than others. In short bursts, stress can kick you into high gear to meet a deadline, jump out of the way of an oncoming car, or muster the courage to stand your ground in an argument. But if you live with this kind of stress all the time — as about 60% of adults do — it takes a toll on your mind and your body.
Dr. Dinash Yanamadula, our board-certified pain specialist here at Princeton Pain & Spine Institute, sees the effects of chronic stress every day at our offices in Lawrenceville and Edgewater, New Jersey. Many of our patients come in seeking answers about their unexplained pain and have never considered the stress-pain relationship.
Here, Dr. Yanamadula takes a closer look at this link.
What happens when you’re stressed?
Whether you’re afraid, angry, or just plain annoyed, these emotions trigger your brain to call for the release of stress hormones. Specifically, it’s the hypothalamus that kickstarts the reaction and orders your adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline — known as stress hormones.
These hormones cause a chain reaction in your body to prepare you for a threatening situation. Whether you use this extra boost of energy to run away or stay and face the danger, these “fight or flight” hormones give your body what it needs to do either, by:
- Speeding up your heart rate
- Increasing your breathing, and therefore, your oxygen levels
- Constricting your blood vessels
- Tightening your muscles
- Focusing your eyes
Those changes enable your body to act quickly, but they’re meant to subside once the situation has normalized. If they don’t, your body stays in a state of hyper-readiness, which affects all your body’s systems and can lead to:
- Digestive issues (heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation)
- Decreased sex drive
- Lowered immunity
- Weight gain
- Profuse sweating
- High blood sugar
- Irregular menstrual cycles
Given this long list of physical effects, it’s not hard to see that chronic stress also causes pain.
The stress-pain connection
Pain and chronic stress go hand in hand for a few reasons. One of the most obvious connections is that stress tightens your muscle fibers. If your muscles never relax, you end up with back pain and neck pain, as the tension tends to settle in those areas.
Chronic stress is also responsible for tension headaches, the kind that makes you feel like you have a vice grip squeezing your head. If you suffer from migraine headaches, and stress happens to be one of your triggers, you can add migraine pain to the list, too.
Many people who live with chronic stress and pain tend to stop exercising, which exacerbates the problem by keeping the muscles tight and tense. Some turn to pain medication for relief.
Which came first, the pain or the stress?
Pain and stress have a symbiotic relationship — each thrives on the other. We’ve just explained how chronic stress can lead to pain, but the reverse is also true: Chronic pain is stressful.
This cyclical relationship makes it hard to break free and find lasting relief. But Dr. Yanamadula can help.
How to break the stress-pain cycle
First, Dr. Yanamadula completes a thorough physical exam and talks with you at length about your symptoms, your health history, and your lifestyle to determine whether stress is a factor in your chronic pain.
If stress is contributing to your pain, he helps you identify the stressors in your life so you can manage them. Through strategic stress-relieving activities, you can effectively lower your own pain levels without medication. Dr. Yanamadula may recommend breathing exercises, meditation, exercise, physical therapy, massage therapy, and other treatments and methods to reduce your stress and your pain.
To find out if your pain is stress-related, schedule an appointment at either of our two locations today by calling our friendly staff or requesting an appointment using our online booking tool.