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Stress, Pain and a Pandemic

Published in Rehabilitation Services, For the Health of It Author: Kristen Heckendorf, Doctorate of Physical Therapy, CentraCare Rehabilitation

Have you ever had a headache start or felt neck tension after a long meeting or busy workday? Changes like this can occur when we are under stress, even without a specific injury.

Did you know that your pain response to an injury is affected by the circumstances in your life?

A back strain, like a paper cut, can be very painful but often results in minimal tissue damage. Tissue damage and pain are not the same thing. Pain is an experience that is affected by many different factors. If you have symptoms that begin during a stressful time, such as our current pandemic, your chances of having chronic or higher levels of pain can increase.

Nontraditional work environments, constant unknowns, and the fear of getting and spreading illness are just a few of the stressors resulting from this pandemic. When in stress, the body’s fight or flight system activates. If this system continues to fire for prolonged periods of time, it can cause body wide changes such as elevated blood pressure, weight gain and increased muscle tension.

Chronic stress can cause our nervous system’s alarm system to become extra alert. This can cause the body to overreact to something that normally is not painful.

How does this knowledge help me fix my nagging neck pain or achy low back?

Managing stress and controlling the fight or flight response may be the best approach for long-term relief.

  • Try combating the body’s stress response with exercise. Moderate aerobic activity allows the body to release endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain relievers. Most healthy individuals can use the “talk test” to help guide aerobic activity thresholds. You should be able to talk while walking, jogging, biking or swimming but you should feel too winded to sing.
  • Deep breathing, meditation, yoga and prayer also are proven ways to encourage a relaxation response.
  • Finally, make sure to keep connected with your social network even if this looks different than previous years. Research shows that people who maintain and enjoy close relationships with family and friends receive emotional support that indirectly helps to fight chronic stress.

When the demands of life are greater, time is more limited and energy levels are depleted, it may feel easy to push exercise to the back burner. However, exercise and relaxation techniques are some of the best ways to combat our bodies’ stress response and prepare us to prevent and recover from injury or illness.