Can stress cause shoulder pain?

Can Stress Cause Shoulder Pain?

This content was updated for accuracy and relevance on 05/30/2024.

Learning how to achieve balance in our lives can be a tricky thing to master. When you’re expected to run the household, manage social activities, and carry a full load at work it can leave you with strong feelings of stress and anxiety. We live in a world where we’re expected to be “on” all the time but the added stress level, day after day, can have adverse effects on the body, ultimately leading to muscle tension or stress in the neck and shoulders, among other things.

It’s natural to experience small moments of stress throughout your day, but  problems start to occur when you experience stress on a consistent basis. This might be chronic physical stress from poor posture, standing all day or performing repetitive motions on the job for long periods of time. Or, stress can stem from emotional difficulties like a relationship, financial, or health concerns.

When stress is present on a regular basis, it begins to show in the form of aches, pains and irritated nerves. So, how are stress and shoulder pain linked?

How Stress Affects the Body

Stress is an inevitable part of life, and while a certain amount of stress can be beneficial, chronic stress can have harsh effects on the body. When we encounter stress, our bodies respond by releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are part of the body’s “fight or flight” response, preparing us to deal with immediate threats or challenges. However, when stress becomes a constant companion, these hormones can wreak havoc on our physical health.

Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, and controlling blood sugar levels. However, prolonged elevation of cortisol due to chronic stress can lead to several health issues. High cortisol levels can result in increased muscle tension, particularly in the neck and shoulders. This muscle tension is the body’s way of preparing for a perceived threat, but when there is no physical danger to address, the constant state of readiness can lead to discomfort and pain.

Adrenaline, another key hormone in the stress response, increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies. While these effects are essential in a short-term stress situation, they can become problematic when adrenaline is released continuously. Persistent adrenaline release keeps the muscles in a state of tension, contributing to the aches and pains often associated with chronic stress.

In addition to hormonal changes, stress can cause the body to adopt unhealthy postures and behaviors that exacerbate muscle tension. For example, stress can lead to poor posture, such as hunching over or tensing the shoulders, which puts additional strain on the neck and shoulder muscles. Over time, these physical manifestations of stress can result in chronic pain and discomfort.

Can stress cause neck pain and tension in the shoulders?

When we experience high levels of anxiety or stress, our body’s natural reaction is to tense up. When this happens consistently over a long period of time, it can lead to muscle tension. This can cause shoulder and neck stiffness, muscle tightness, aching, and acute pain. Stress-related shoulder pain and neck pain are typically the result of emotional or mental anxiety. This can directly affect the muscles and nerves that run through your shoulders, neck, and cervical spine.

Aside from psychological and emotional stress, there are other issues that lead to feeling sore shoulders. These can include overuse, poor posture, long periods of sitting, incorrect or poor sleeping positions, and cases of shoulder injury.

Why is my shoulder hurting for no reason?

Wondering to yourself, “why does my neck and shoulder hurt?” If you’re experiencing shoulder pain, but you can’t recall doing anything to trigger a nerve, and you aren’t feeling regular bouts of stress, there may be something internally irritating the shoulder that you’re not aware of. Common conditions include:

  • Rotator cuff tendonitis and bursitis – a swelling of the tissues and tendons that connect the muscles and bones in the shoulder
  • Rotator cuff tear – a tear in the tissues that connect the muscle to the bone and tendons around the shoulder joint
  • Arthritis – inflammation that causes chronic pain and tight knots in the shoulder
  • Frozen shoulder – stiffness and chronic pain in the shoulder joint that typically worsens over time
  • Tendon tear – a tear in the tissues connecting the muscle to the bone around the shoulder joint

Stretches for Neck and Shoulder Pain

Massage, yoga, and rotator cuff physical therapy are all great ways to improve proper body mechanics and relieve neck pain and shoulder tension. In addition, it is suggested to do a few stretches to see if you can get your shoulders and neck muscles to relax a bit. Here are a few simple, yet effective shoulder and neck stretch exercises you can incorporate throughout your day.

Neck Muscle Exercises

Lower your chin to your chest for 15 seconds and gently let the weight of your head create a stretch through your upper back. Next, gently drop your head towards the right for 15 seconds, then to the left side for 15 seconds.

Shoulder to Ear

Sit with a straight spine and gently tilt your head towards your left shoulder. You can go a little deeper into this stretch by gently pulling your head down slightly farther with your right hand, until you feel a gentle pull. Hold this position for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Shoulder Rolls

While sitting or standing, maintain good posture and roll your shoulders up, back, then down. Repeat this circular motion 10 times. Then do the opposite and roll your shoulders up, forward, then down. Repeat 10 times.

Shoulder Raises

While standing or sitting, put your arms down by your side, straighten your back. Then slowly lift your tight shoulder up toward your ears. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lower your tight shoulder back down. Repeat this action 5 times.

Cross Arm Stretch

Bring your right arm across your chest and bring your left hand up to support it. Slightly push your right arm into your chest to get a deeper, yet gentle stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.

Forward bend

Stand up straight with your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart. Interlace your hands behind your back. You should feel a gentle pull in your chest. With a slight bend in the knees fold forward, hinging at the hips, and bring your arms up towards the ceiling. Make sure there is no discomfort or neck tension by allowing your head to hang down freely. Continue to hold this stretch for 60 seconds.


Giving yourself a mental break can help relax your shoulder and neck muscles. Sit quietly with your eyes closed for 5-10 minutes. Try listening to a guided meditation or just simply allow your mind to be still. It may take some practice, but try working your way up to meditating for 10-20 minutes each day to help reduce chronic stress levels.

Move Your Body

Cardio and aerobic exercises can engage the tight muscles in your stiff neck and shoulders which will increase the blood supply, stretch the muscles, and release toxins.

More Ways to Relieve Stress-Induced Tension

While we’ll never be able to eliminate stress completely, there are healthy habits, along with shoulder prehab exercises, can help reduce levels of emotional stress and anxiety.

  • Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet
  • Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days per week
  • Reduce caffeine, alcohol, and sugar intake
  • Get enough sleep each night
  • Avoid cigarettes and drugs
  • Think positively and surround yourself with positive people

Can physical therapy help with stress related neck pain and shoulder tension?

It is important to seek out a physical therapist to relieve your shoulder and neck tension or it could lead to bigger shoulder problems down the road. If left untreated, your persistent or chronic neck pain can lead to a tension headache or migraine.

There’s a multitude of evidence to support the effectiveness of physical therapy when it comes to reducing shoulder pain. Physical therapy treatment options for shoulder pain include manual therapy, joint mobilization, therapeutic exercises, stretching, therapeutic ultrasound, laser therapy, and modalities such as electrical stimulation/TENS, heat or ice.

Physical therapy can be a safe and effective option for muscle pain relief and managing the effects of chronic stress. If your stress-induced shoulder and neck pain lasts for more than a few weeks, give us a call or request an appointment to discuss potential treatment options.

Article by:  Holly Lookabaugh-Deur, PT, DSc, GCS, CEEAA

Ivy Rehab

Holly is a practicing physical therapist, partner and Director of Clinical Services at Ivy Rehab Network with more than 40 years of experience in sports management with young athletes, and is board certified as a geriatric clinical specialist and certified exercise expert for aging adults. Deuer is certified as an aquatic and oncology rehabilitation specialist and serves as adjunct faculty at Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University.

The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.

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