Neck Pain and Stress: PT-Approved Tips and Exercises to Relieve Tension
Learn how stress can contribute to neck pain and how to prevent and relieve it, especially with exercises from Hinge Health physical therapists.
Let’s face it: Life can be stressful. While stress can impact us emotionally, it can also take a physical toll, even contributing to how we experience pain. If you’ve noticed pain in your neck lately, pause and reflect on your daily routine. A number of factors can contribute to neck pain, and it’s possible that stress could be partially to blame.
Taking steps to manage stress in your life can have a big impact on neck pain, both from a musculoskeletal perspective and by adjusting how your body responds to pain in general. Physical therapy can also aid in relieving neck pain, by strengthening the structures around your neck while also stretching out areas of tension that are contributing to pain.
Read on to learn more about the connection between stress and neck pain, and how to relieve and prevent it — especially with exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What’s the Connection Between Stress and Neck Pain?
Ever notice you just feel worse when you’re under a lot of stress? Maybe you feel butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous about a meeting with your boss or you feel more fatigued than usual when you’re working on a big project. That’s because stress directly affects the body.
When you’re stressed, you may find yourself hunched forward more often. “This puts muscles in a position to work harder, which can contribute to tension across the neck and shoulders,” says Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. You may also clench your jaw and grind your teeth more when life is stressful, and that tension can work its way down to your neck.
When stress becomes chronic, or long-term, it can also start to take a toll on your routines — which in turn, can affect how your body feels. You may notice that under stress, you:
Take longer to fall asleep or toss and turn more frequently.
Eat less nutritious food or skip meals altogether.
Spend more time on screens, in positions that can increase tension in your neck.
Move your body less often.
Skip out on social activities.
Don’t prioritize self-care.
Tense your muscles more frequently (especially muscles in your shoulders and neck).
All of these factors can contribute to your neck pain, so an ache that might not be a big deal starts to feel much more painful when you’re stressed. “Any time we have more input to the nervous system, such as during stress, we’ll feel more sensitive to pain,” says Dr. Vinci.
Other Neck Pain Contributors
Other factors can also contribute to neck pain, whether or not you feel stressed. Common causes of neck pain include:
Lack of movement. Joints and muscles need frequent movement to function well. If you sit or stand all day without changing positions, you may notice tension in your neck and shoulders due to stiffness.
Change in movement. Whether you’re moving your body more than usual, moving it in ways you normally don’t, or you’re returning to exercise after an injury, you could develop tension and pain in your neck if you don’t prepare your body for this change in movement.
Sometimes, other medical conditions or injuries can contribute to neck pain. If changing your routines and incorporating more movement aren’t helping, your medical provider can help you figure out what could be contributing to your neck pain.
Stress and Your “Pain Backpack”
Pain isn’t just a physical experience. Psychological and social factors can also contribute to how your body feels at any given point. At Hinge Health, we like to imagine pain as a backpack. Any factor that contributes to pain — such as a previous injury, inactivity, or muscle strain — goes inside of it. When your backpack is full, your body sends a warning in the form of a pain sensation. The more factors that fill up your backpack at any given time, the more sensitive your body can be to pain.
Stress is one of the most important factors that contributes to your pain sensitivity. “The same level of muscle tension during a non-stressful period may become more painful during a stressful period,” says Dr. Vinci. “This doesn’t mean the tissue is more injured. It’s just that stress may cause things like inflammation, fatigue, and tightness, which changes the tipping point of tissue sensitivity.”
While it can be discouraging to experience more neck pain when you’re stressed, there’s also good news: Taking steps to better manage your stress levels can go a long way in reducing your experience of pain.
How Physical Therapy Helps Neck Pain
Another key way to reduce stress-related neck pain is physical therapy. A physical therapist (PT) can suggest exercises and movements that help reduce muscle tension in the neck and surrounding area. A PT can recommend activities that:
Stretch your neck. When your muscles are tense, they contract and shorten. Stretching can increase muscle length, which reduces tension and pain. Stretching, says Dr. Vinci, also increases blood flow and enhances nervous system activity by calming your nerves, both of which can relieve pain.
Strengthen your neck. When the muscles in and around your neck are strengthened, they can better support your upright posture and general movement. “When these areas are strong, you'll experience less fatigue in your neck and shoulders that can contribute to muscle tension,” says Dr. Vinci.
Relax your body. A PT can help you incorporate more relaxing activities — such as deep breathing — into your movement regimen to calm your nervous system and reduce stress that may be contributing to pain.
Exercises to Ease Stress-Related Neck Pain
A physical therapist can help you identify factors that are contributing to your neck pain and develop targeted movements to help reduce it (and prevent it in the future). The above exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great place to start.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
More Tips to Treat or Prevent Stress-Related Neck Pain
Reducing your emotional and physical stress levels can pack a big punch when it comes to reducing stress-related neck pain. Try integrating the following strategies into your day:
Diaphragmatic breathing. Taking deep, slow breaths sends a signal to your body that calms your nervous system, which Dr. Vinci says can curtail both the emotional and physical effects of stress.
Move your body more. Getting up to walk around or stretch every hour or two (we call these “movement snacks”) can make a big difference in reducing tension in your body, including your neck. If needed, set an alarm as a reminder anytime you’re sitting for a long time.
Talk to someone. Social support can play an important role in reducing the effects of stress on the body and on your mental health. Try to open up to someone who cares about you on a regular basis, and if needed, reach out to a mental health professional for extra support.
Eat a nutritious diet. It’s easy to reach for less-nutritous comfort foods when you’re stressed, but food can directly impact how you feel (and certain foods can cause more stress on the body). Try to add more plant-based foods to your diet and incorporate fewer inflammatory ones, such as sugar, alcohol, and processed food.
Try out mindfulness. Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and paying close attention to your emotions and physical sensations — without judging them. Over time, mindfulness can reduce stress and decrease activity in the part of your brain that processes pain. Try downloading a mindfulness-based app or or listening to a podcast to incorporate it into your daily life.
Prioritize sleep. Sleep deprivation is all too common under stress, but it can also culminate in more stress (which, as we covered, may increase your experience of pain). Set yourself up with a pillow that works best for you and prioritize good sleep habits before bed, especially by following a predictable sleep-wake schedule, to help your body better cope with stress.
PT Tip: Combine Breathing and Movement
Any time you take a movement break or work on PT exercises, add some deep, slow belly breathing to your activity. “Movement is always helpful, but you can make it multidimensional by layering it with a relaxation strategy," says Dr. Vinci. “Pairing movement with deep breathing, for example, is more meaningful because it increases the benefit to your nervous system.”
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.
See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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