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Eliminating Stress Brings Pain Relief

Getting a handle on everyday stress can help you better manage the pain you're experiencing.

Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH

It's easy to get stressed out when the pressures of work, family, and everyday life are weighing on you. These stresses can have not only an emotional impact, they can cause physical pain as well.
Stress and pain are often closely linked. Each one can have an impact on the other, creating a vicious cycle that sets the stage for chronic pain and chronic stress. So, part of getting pain relief is learning how to better manage stress.
"Lots of studies support the conclusion that what happens in the brain — depression, anxiety, being stressed out — can increase pain. At the same time, if you have more pain, you may be more stressed," says Jennifer Schneider, MD, PhD, a chronic-pain specialist and author of the book Living With Chronic Pain. "Each makes the other worse, so if you decrease pain, you'll likely also decrease stress and anxiety."
Pain Relief: Understanding the Stress-Pain Connection

It's not completely clear yet to researchers how stress and pain are related. However, stressed-out people often experience neck, shoulder, and back pain. This could be due to the link between stress and tension in the muscles. It could also be related to brain chemicals.
To allow us to keep functioning despite pain, the brain tries to maintain balance when it receives pain signals by minimizing these signals, says Steven Stanos, DO, medical director of the Center for Pain Management at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University Medical School. But chronic stress can offset this balance.
"Because pain [is regulated by] the nervous system, the brain is a key player in how we perceive pain," says Dr. Stanos. "The brain is always trying to inhibit pain signals. But if you're stressed, simply put, the brain's ability to filter these pain signals is affected in a bad way and pain can be increased."
Pain Relief: Start With Stress Relief

One thing is clear: for many people, stress relief, be it avoiding stress or learning how to cope with it, can lead to pain relief.
"Patients need to manage their stress to be in the best psychological state to benefit from other therapies," says Carmen Green, MD, associate professor of anesthesiology and director of pain medicine research at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.
Try these tips:
  • Get moving. Being active can help decrease stress levels. "Make exercise a priority, whether it's 30 minutes on an exercise bike or going to the gym four times a week," says Stanos. Other stress-relieving activities can include walking or pool therapy. Consult with a doctor first if you're concerned about how exercise may impact your pain.
  • Get more restful sleep. Proper sleep can also help you cope with stress. "Restorative sleep can help you better face the turmoil of the day. So get enough sleep and better quality sleep," says Dr. Green. "We know sleep impacts healing."
  • Find a balance. Our schedules are often packed, with little down time. Take the time to examine your daily routine and modify it for better stress control. "Identify leisure things you like to do and make them a bigger part of your daily routine," Green suggests.
  • Chill out. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, guided imagery, and meditation can essentially force you to relax and decrease stress levels. Once you've learned these techniques you can do them on your own at any time throughout your day.
  • Seek support. Evaluation by a mental health professional, whether it's a social worker with expertise in pain or a pain psychologist or psychiatrist, can also help you deal with stress and provide pain relief, says Green.
Recurrent pain can definitely affect your quality of life, but learning how to cope with stress can help you manage that pain and lessen its harmful impact.
Last Updated: 02/19/2013


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