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Stress: A Pain in the Neck

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Stress: "Pressure or tension exerted on an object, can be physical or mental/emotional”

It has been a year and a half of covid and now our third wave. Stress has become so common, our new reality, that it has had an impact on every sphere of our life. I am often overwhelmed these days, it feels like PTSD and trauma is sadly part of my daily practice. Simple celebrations such as weddings/pregnancies/birthdays are rare and downplayed and we living in a twilight zone of masks and fear. Having something to look forward to is becoming an essential coping mechanism. No matter how small, finding something positive to focus my attention on is critical at keeping me sane.

Stress and neck pain/health concerns almost always come together. Often we ignore our emotional stress until our body forces us to stop and pay attention, often in way of neck pain. Stress does not always need to be bad, it can be healthy in short bursts to help you avoid danger or meet a deadline. Stress can be short term, or it can become chronic and this is when it can cause health related troubles. Chronic stress is my focus in this article.

Your body undergoes changes when you are under stress and it is not designed to have this changes for prolonged periods of time. Increases in cortisol and adrenaline are part of this response – the “fight or flight” response. This response increases heart rate, slows digestion, increases blood pressure as well as other autonomic responses. It then stands to reason how chronic stress can cause related health problems and burn out.

So what can you do when you feeling burnt out?

  • Educated yourself, knowledge is power and learning to recognize the signs your body presents with can go a long way in making changes to prevent complications

  • Exercise! – Always an important part of our action plan. Do what you love, there are so many options available for all personality types.

  • Self-care – This is not just about spa’s and holidays, this is about taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing, selfcare can be you exercise class, your healthy food, quiet time, quality time with yourself and your loved ones, talking to a friend or therapy.

  • Practice mindfulness. This is increasingly being shown to have enormous health and wellness benefits. Focussing on positive thoughts and practicing gratitude will help give you perspective and help acceptance of the things you cannot change.

  • Learn to say no.

"Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry - all forms of fear - are caused by too much future, and not enough presence" Eckhart Tolle

Education Focus: Neck Pain

Out of all 291 conditions studied in the Global Burden of Disease 2010 Study, neck pain ranked 4th highest in terms of disability. Women are more prone to neck pain as are high income countries compared to low income counties, greater prevalence in urban vs rural areas and peak at 45 years of age. Rates of recurrence and chronicity of neck pain are high. Most people with neck pain do not experience a complete resolution of symptoms, with between 50% and 85% of those who experience neck pain reporting neck pain again 1 to 5 years later.

Risk factors for neck pain share similarities with other musculoskeletal conditions such as genetics, depression, anxiety, poor coping skills, sleep disorders, smoking, and sedentary lifestyle. I found it interesting that although office and sedentary jobs have a higher incidence of persons with neck pain, poor job satisfaction and unhappiness at work was the major linked factor.

The anatomy of the neck is intricate and amazing. Your neck is made up of 7 cervical vertebrae with 8 nerve roots (unlike the rest of the spine, the roots come out above the cervical level, with C8 nerve root coming out below C7 vertebrae). Approximately half your neck flexion/extension happens at the top, occiput (skull) and C1 joint with half your rotation happening at the next C1/2 joint. It is also unusual as the vertebral artery runs through holes in the sides of the vertebrae. All these differences in anatomy means that we can have more unusual symptoms caused from it, such as dizziness/vertigo, so much so that if manipulated incorrectly or unsafely, a loss in blood flow to the brain can cause you to pass out or in serious and more rare events, have a stroke.

Common symptoms of neck trouble include headaches, pain in the neck, symptoms in shoulder and even down the upper back/chest and arms such as pain, pins and needles or numbness.

Neck problems can be caused by:

  • Muscle strains. The most common cause of neck pain. Neck strains are caused by overuse of the neck muscles such as too many hours sat hunched in a chair.

  • Weakness. Sedentary lifestyles have long been linked with neck pain.

  • Worn joints. As we age our joints in the neck become worn down. Osteoarthritis causes the cartilage between vertebrae to age. This can then cause osteophytes to form that can affect range of motion and cause pain.

  • Nerve compression. Limited space in the vertebral joints of your neck and inflammation can cause pressure on the nerves branching out from the intervertebral foramen.

  • Injuries. Motor collisions and sporting injuries can often result in whiplash injury, which occurs when the head is jerked backward and then forward, straining the soft tissues of the neck and causing inflammation.

  • Diseases. Diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis or cancer, can cause neck pain.

So what can you do to manage or prevent neck pain?

  • Use good posture. When standing and sitting, try keep you neck lengthened, tall with your chin tucked in and not poking forward. Also work towards symmetry and balance and avoiding shifting/leaning to one side or spending long periods of time rotated or twisted.

  • Take frequent breaks. If you travel long distances or work long hours at your computer, get up, move around and move your neck and shoulders.

  • Take care of your mental health, reduce stress and practice gratitude and mindfulness.

  • Ergonomics: Adjust your desk, chair and computer so that the monitor is at eye level and in front of you, not rotated in a corner. Knees should be slightly lower than hips. Use your chair's armrests.

  • Exercise, movement is always good. Strong shoulders and upper back will make a difference.

  • Avoid tucking the phone between your ear and shoulder when you talk. Use a headset or speakerphone instead.

  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking can put you at higher risk of developing neck pain and other health problems.

  • Avoid carrying heavy bags with straps over your shoulder for extended periods. The weight can strain your neck.

  • Sleep in a good position. Your head and neck should be aligned with your body. Use a small pillow under your neck. Try sleeping on your back with your thighs elevated on pillows, which will flatten your spinal muscles.

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