"My neck is stiff."
"My shoulders just feel tight."
These are some of the many things I hear frequently in practice.
As a chiropractor, the treatments I provide my patients are directed towards influencing the nervous system, muscles, bones/joints, connective tissues, etc. I treat these things through various modalities such as spinal manipulation, soft tissue techniques and exercise prescription with great success. Many seek out care for their neck pain or discomfort and most of the time these people see much improvement with the therapies mentioned above. For those who improve temporarily but revert back to where they first started, other factors need to be addressed.
Many times, it is stress that is causing this relapse.
Anger, fright and anxiety are just a few of the many emotions that are stress inducing.
What else does being angry, frightened, or anxious all have in common?
These emotions (among other stressors) can cause the tissues around the neck to tense. In more dramatic scenarios the tissues not only tense, they can shorten suddenly in an effort to protect the neck. Think of the last time someone startled you unexpectedly. If you're still having trouble visualizing this, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYhEs99LWI8 - it's also good for a laugh.
Why would you need to protect your neck when you're stressed? Even though many stressors today are non-life threatening, shrugging your shoulders is a deeply rooted protective reflex. Being the only connection between the brain and the rest of our body, the neck is an incredibly important and vulnerable area. Maintaining this brain-body connection is essential to life. We understand this, as I'm sure many predatory animals also understand to some degree. Have you ever watched an animal documentary on Discovery or BBC? It's no coincidence that predatory animals such as cougars and lions often go for the throat of the less fortunate elk, deer or other unsuspecting animal.
Shrugging of the shoulders isn't inherently a bad thing. But when we are constantly submersed in stressful scenarios, this tension within the upper back and neck can take its toll.
Imagine holding a 5 pound dumbbell in your hand with your elbow bent to 90 degrees. It's not initially difficult, but if you stay in that position the muscles involved in holding the weight will begin to fatigue. If held for long enough, the muscles may become sore and irritated. They can also stiffen and reduce the movement around the elbow as a result of the overload to the tissues. Apply this same thought process to the muscles of your neck. No wonder your neck is stiff, tight, sore, etc. - You've overworked the tissues by keeping them in a tensed position for extended periods of time.
To make matters more confusing, you can be stressed and not know it. In a physiological sense, stress results in changes to the many workings of the human body such as altered hormone levels, immune function, neural drive, brain activity levels, etc. However, stress as most people know it is simply the physical manifestation of the physiological changes occurring in the body.
Our environment has a profound effect on our wellbeing. Many people today are perfectly content spending their day staring at their computer screen for several hours while guzzling multiple coffees at a Starbucks on a busy city corner. Although some people may enjoy spending their days in this environment, this can affect everything mentioned above. Excessive caffeine consumption, time spent in front of a screen (particularly in the evening), and sporadic but frequent loud noise are just a few factors that can unconsciously affect the complex systems which regulate our day-to-day function.
So, how can you lessen your current bout of "stress-neck"? This is a loaded question and one that involves an in depth reflection and discussion of what causes your stress to begin with. There are many strategies to reduce your stress levels. Meditation, belly-breathing, meditation with movement (tai-chi, some forms of yoga) and float therapy are some of the many practices that can help you manage your stress. With some tinkering, you can find out which ones work best for you. While adding certain stress-reduction practices can be beneficial, it is often necessary to address/remove some of the factors that cause the stress to begin with. In my opinion it's best to adopt these stress-reduction strategies in conjunction with treatment from your healthcare team. After all, just because stress may be a contributor to your issues, it doesn't mean there aren't any other neuro-musculoskeletal factors influencing your current neck problem.