Stress Causes Pain

Sometimes, pain and physical symptoms are just in your head. 

The real symptoms you experience could be a product of psychological stressors activating your autonomic nervous system. “The autonomic nervous system functions unconsciously to regulate one’s heart rate, pupil dilation, breathing rate, digestion, and other bodily processes,” said Sara Whedon, DC (Doctor of Chiropractic), a member of the Michigan Chiropractors Association’s Public Education Committee. Chronic pain, or pain that lasts for more than three months continuously or intermittently is one of those conditions that can be caused or exacerbated by chronic stress and mental health struggles like depression

Dr. Heidi Haavik, a doctor of human neurophysiology and DC who has been practicing for over 15 years, discussed this phenomenon in an interview with the Adjusted Reality Podcast produced by The Foundation for Chiropractic Progress. Dr. Haavik and the other pioneers in her field have discovered that “a lot of chronic pain problems are actually a nerve problem within the brain itself.” While these issues may be ‘just in your head,’ that doesn’t make the pain any less real. In fact, it’s now understood that emotional and psychological wounds can feel just as painful as physical ones. Dr. Haavik says, “What we know now, the pain system, the feelings of pain, they’re actually considered danger warning signals…for example, fear or loneliness or anxiety or stress, those signals alone can activate the danger warning system, and you could feel pain.” 

While our autonomic nervous system is crucial to our survival in dangerous, life-or-death situations, many of the stressors or inconveniences of modern life, including mental health struggles like anxiety or depression, despite not being life-threatening, can cause it to react. 

It’s Just Might Be “All In Your Head”:

The nervous system’s reaction to stress, anxiety, or depression can lead to people dealing with both emotional and physical symptoms. The Cleveland Clinic reports that physical symptoms can include: 

  • aches and pains
  • trouble sleeping
  • muscle tension

Harvard Health concurs and says, “When you are under stress or anxious, this system kicks into action, and physical symptoms can appear — headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, shakiness, or stomach pain.” The Mayo Clinic also discusses how stress can increase the amount of pain experienced by those living with chronic pain.

Other experts, like Harvard Health, have also found that there is often a connection between chronic pain and psychological stress. Harvard Health Publishing discusses the connection between chronic pain, saying that for “people with depression or anxiety, pain can become particularly intense and hard to treat. People suffering from depression, for example, tend to experience more severe and long-lasting pain than other people. Psychological issues not only make pain worse, but experiencing chronic pain can also cause serious mental health struggles. 

How Chronic Pain Can Increase Mental Health Issues

The overlap of anxiety, depression, and pain is particularly evident in chronic and sometimes disabling pain syndromes such as 

Researchers once thought the reciprocal relationship between pain, anxiety, and depression resulted mainly from psychological rather than biological factors. Chronic pain is depressing, so major depression may feel physically painful. But as researchers have learned more about how the brain works and how the nervous system interacts with other parts of the body, they have discovered that pain shares some biological mechanisms with anxiety and depression.”

Lower back pain is a particularly concerning chronic condition because it is so common. Another Harvard Health publication reports that “Low back pain is the second most common cause of disability in the U.S. Over 80% of people will experience an episode of this pain at some point in their lives.” Lower back pain also seems to particularly impact one’s psychological state because it can be so debilitating. 

Chiropractic’s Pain-Reducing Role

Some medical treatments for chronic pain, like opioids, have actually been shown to be correlated with an increased risk of depression in patients and consistently require stronger doses to be effective. Because of this risk, many patients are looking for other science-backed, nonpharmaceutical treatments to treat both physical pain and mental health issues. Dr. Haavik explains that our nervous system responds to negative stimuli (anxiety, depression, or everyday stress) by turning “on all the big muscles, priming them for fight or flight, but…turns off the little muscles close to the spine and skull.” Your brain relies on these to control your spinal movement. Chronic stress leads to these muscles being frequently turned off, which can damage them. 

Dr. Haavik continues that “these are the exact same muscles that we activate when Chiropractors adjust the spine.” Chronic stress and the damage it can do to these muscles correlate with chronic spinal problems, including poor posture. Chiropractic care is focused on improving nervous system health through spinal manipulation and other holistic treatments. Since we know that some nervous system activity causes pain and that chronic pain syndromes are also likely to cause psychological issues, it’s important to visit your DC to include their perspective in your treatment of chronic pain and/or mental health issues.

Chiropractic care can improve spinal flexibility and movement, which has been shown to reduce painAccording to Harvard Health, “When your physical movement is limited, this can cause psychological distress, and the psychological distress can, in return, worsen the pain.” This is one of the reasons why increasing movement and flexibility that comes with Chiropractic treatments can be beneficial. Having light exercise, utilizing stress reduction techniques, and participating in activities you enjoy can all improve your mood, thus reducing stress and pain.