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Stress can be a right pain in the neck...

If there is one thing we can all say we have shared over the last year is STRESS! I've seen a steady increase in Shoulder and Neck pain in the clinic over the last year, this is down to a number of different things, Home Working, Decreased Activity and, of course, Heightened Stress Levels.

There is an interesting moment in the BBC News 24 countdown sequence. The tension builds as the drums beat and the pips match the time signal. Images of various correspondents, working both home and abroad, are flashed across the screen until we see John Simpson talking to camera in a war zone. An explosion occurs behind him and John, the consummate professional, continues to speak to camera. His body does react however. In fact all the people around him react in the same way. His head drops down and his shoulders rise up as he ducks.

The body is well designed to protect vulnerable areas. The major nerves and blood vessels in the arms and legs run down the inner surface of the limbs. The femoral artery for example runs down the less exposed inner thigh. But one area of the body is very vulnerable and not well protected at all – the neck. The instinctive reaction of John Simpson is designed to make the body a smaller target but also designed to protect the exposed neck and throat. The shoulders rise up as the head drops down and the back stoops. This instinctive reaction lasts just a second or two before his posture returns to normal.

We've all been through different stresses in the last year, Thanks Rona, whenever I took time to notice I found my shoulders were nearly up to my ears with the stress. Now Swansea is hardly a war zone, so what is happening here? The body finds it difficult to distinguish between instantaneous fight or flight situations and the insidious stress we feel in our everyday lives and the physical reactions can be remarkably similar.

How Does Stress Cause Neck and Shoulder Pain?

Holding the shoulders in this raised position causes the neck and shoulder muscles to become shortened and tight. The muscles become strained particularly at the tendons where they join the area of bone at the back of the skull called the occiput. The associated discomfort, the aching shoulders and a sore neck, will be familiar to most of us. The hyperventilation and ‘chest breathing’ associated with stress exacerbate the situation still further as a band of tightness around the chest develops.

Under normal circumstances after the stress is resolved, the tension in the muscles dissipates relatively quickly; a good night out with friends, a relaxing holiday or a massage is usually sufficient to relax the muscles, I know the chance would would be a fine thing in current circumstances. But, as Osteopaths we are trained to help reduce muscle tension and therefore help with these tight over worked muscles.

Interestingly, although stress and tight muscles can lead to headaches, latest research suggests that tension headaches may be caused or at least prolonged by taking too many painkillers over a period of time. Some people are trapped in a “vicious cycle” of taking medication for pain relief, which then causes even more headaches. The warning came as part of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence’s (NICE) first guidelines for treating headaches.

In light of this research it becomes a matter of some urgency to find an alternative to taking pain killers for headaches. Fortunately, plenty of research has been done to investigate the effect of Osteopathy on chronic non-migraine headaches and stress.

BBC sounds have just released a new Mental Health Toolkit to help you relax, unwind and manage your stress. Here is the link to check it out:

BBC - Headroom - Your Mental Health Toolkit

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