‘I carry all my stress in my shoulders’, ‘I have had a headache for the past week – yes, work has been stressful’, ‘I have a stressful deadline coming up, and my lower back has been killing me!’

These are some examples of phrases we often hear in our rooms, and we know these people are not alone. Stress can be a huge cause of muscle and joint pain, especially in the neck, upper and lower back. Since July is mental health awareness month, I thought we could explore how stress can cause muscle pain, and why a visit to your physiotherapist and biokineticist could help you.

How does stress cause muscle pain?


When we get stressed, certain hormones are released. One such hormone is adrenaline. Adrenaline puts us in ‘fight’ mode and causes our blood pressure to rise, increases our blood supply, and causes the muscles around our spine to tense up in case we need to flee from the source of stress (if only running away was the answer). Another hormone that gets released is cortisol – the stress hormone. Elevations in cortisol interferes with many bodily functions, and can lead to loss of muscle mass and increased fat accumulation.


When we are stressed our breathing patterns change. Our shoulders hunch up, and we tend to breathe more with the upper part of our lungs. This puts massive strain on our neck, upper and middle back muscles, which can result in tight muscles and pain. Furthermore, the strain on your neck can also cause headaches, fatigue and irritability.

Poor habits

We tend to be more sedentary when we feel more stressed. This means we exercise and move less. As a result, our muscles become weak, and tighten up which can cause pain. We also tend to spend more time slouched in front of a computer. This can cause decreased flexibility and pain in your lower back, as well as major strain on your neck and upper back.

So how can your physiotherapist and biokineticist help?

– Firstly, a visit to your physio or bio can help you distinguish whether the pain is caused by stress or if there is another underlying issue.
– Your physio can use different hands-on techniques to help decrease your pain, increase your flexibility as well as help your body relax. Often our body’s ‘forget’ how to relax and it is important to help them learn how to feel this again.
– Your physio and/or bio can help you with a stretching and exercise routine.
– They can teach you breathing and relaxation exercises to help decrease your stress.
– They can teach you correct ergonomics and help you with your work station set up to help decrease the strain put on your muscles during those busy deadlines
– If needed, your physio or bio can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further intervention if need be.

We can all use a little help during these stressful times. If you are experiencing abnormal amounts of stress, it may be a good idea to give your physio or bio a visit today!