Can Stress Cause Shoulder Pain?
This content was updated for accuracy and relevance on July 24, 2023
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 in our neck and shoulders, among other things.
It’s natural to experience small moments of stress throughout your day, but the 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 does this response to life’s daily challenges end up causing chronic muscle tension in the neck and shoulders?
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 stiffness, muscle tightness, aching, and acute pain in your neck and shoulders. Stress-related neck and shoulder 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 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.
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.
While standing or sitting, put your arms down by your side, straighten your back. Then slowly lift your shoulders up toward your ears. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lower your shoulders 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 by slightly pushing your right arm into your chest to get a deeper, yet gentle stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
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 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 from our lives completely, there are healthy habits, along with shoulder prehab exercises, that we can incorporate on a daily basis to 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 problems down the road. If left untreated, your persistent 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
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.