We all know someone who gets a headache or stomachache every time they have a big presentation or exam coming up. In fact, we may have our own telltale pain signals when we’re feeling stressed – pain in the shoulders, jaw, the mount of one hand, arms or back are all different ways in which our body tells us we need to slow down.

Stress and pain have an irrefutable connection. Here’s how one leads to the other:

Effects of stress

When we are stressed, our muscles tighten. They do this to brace themselves, for maximum protection against any sort of injury. This tension in the muscle fibres usually passes once we calm down.

However, if the stressful situation persists, the muscles remain in tension. In some cases, this prolonged tension may even result in tension headaches, migraine, back and shoulder pain and body aches.

According to the American Psychological Association, “musculoskeletal pain in the lower back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress”.

Stress makes pain worse

Our body has certain “pain pathways” – our brain’s means for telling the body it’s in pain. When we are stressed for prolonged periods, our pain pathways become more sensitive and we feel more pain than we normally would in any situation.

Over time, this can start a vicious cycle of stress and pain. More stress leads to more pain. And pain increases stress. (This is one of the reasons why people in pain can become more irritable.)

Stress is also a key factor in chronic pain disorders such as fibromyalgia. That’s why doctors often ask fibromyalgia patients about their stress levels as well as the amount of sleep they’re getting.

More stress hormone

Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. When we’re under stress, the adrenal glands – situated over the kidneys – release these hormones as a way to prepare us for “fight or flight”.

Basically, the stress hormone prepares our body to combat the stressful event by burning more glucose and fats so that we are not deprived of energy at any time.

Persistent stress, however, dampens the effect of cortisol on the body. It leads to hormonal imbalance as well as impaired communication between the brain and the body, resulting in mental issues such as depression, metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity, immune disorders and chronic fatigue.

Stress induces inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s protective response against any threat; be it an injury, infection or stress. According to a 2017 study, excessive inflammation has a role to play in the development of stress-related diseases such as high blood pressure, mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, metabolic diseases such as diabetes and non alcoholic fatty liver and cancer.

Prolonged stress opens up the door for increased secretion of inflammation-causing chemicals such as C-reactive protein, TNF-alpha, and IL-beta in the body that in turn leads to progression of stress-related diseases.

Health articles in NewsX are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more information, please read our article on Stress: Causes, Treatment, Remedies.

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