Shoulder pain caused by stress: How it occurs, what helps

Stress puts a strain on the heart and stomach – but often also leads to shoulder pain. Why tension and pressure cause joint problems and what can quickly provide relief.

Our shoulders hurt almost as often as our backs. Eight out of ten people suffer from shoulder pain at some point in their lives. We have difficulty pulling our sweaters over our heads, putting our hands behind our backs or reaching for the vase on the shelf. The pain often increases over months, sometimes years, and the arm becomes increasingly difficult to move. The fact is: such pain is often caused by stress. Common symptoms include a painful, tense feeling, stiffness, discomfort when moving, often in conjunction with tension headaches. But how exactly does stress affect the shoulders?

How stress causes shoulder pain

Stress triggers a “fight or flight” response in the body. This causes the release of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body to deal with potential threats by pumping blood through the body faster, providing sugar reserves and activating the muscles for a quick escape. If stress continues, this can lead to chronic tension and pain in the neck and shoulders.

Prolonged stress promotes inflammation, which can cause frozen shoulder or impingement syndrome. This causes the shoulder to stiffen and hurt. Over time, the symptoms worsen and it becomes difficult to move the shoulder.

Anxiety, depression and other psychological stresses, such as trauma and PTSD, can be accompanied by shoulder pain. The greater the psychological burden, the greater the risk of discomfort.

Our shoulder is a diva, and we quickly feel stress in it. The joint does offer a high degree of mobility, but it is not particularly stable: only muscles and ligaments hold the shoulder head in place. There is no proper joint socket like in the hip. So much room comes at a price. Sometimes it gets too tight, sometimes calcium or fluid builds up, or superfluous bone spurs crunch with every movement. And often it is stress that weighs on the shoulders and leads to tension. A first step: become aware of the pressure. Only if you recognize what is wrong with you can you counteract the symptoms permanently. Read here what you can do:

How to deal with stress-related shoulder pain

Physical exercise helps to relieve pain by reducing stress hormones in the body, improving blood circulation and thus relieving muscle tension. Sport also helps you take your mind off things. Yoga, targeted shoulder and stretching exercises (see further down in the text) can be used to directly target and relieve tense muscles.

  • Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Practices such as meditation, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation help reduce stress levels and muscle tone and improve physical symptoms.

  • Healthy, positive lifestyle

In addition to exercise and relaxation, sleep and nutrition are the four important pillars of a healthy life. A balanced diet with little meat and sugar and sufficient sleep help to reduce stress.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) work against stress and the physical complaints that come with it. The professionals will provide you with tools and strategies for more effective stress management.

What you can do in an emergency if you have acute shoulder pain

Heat or cold can relieve pain, at least temporarily. Heat is good for muscular tension. Try a bath, a hot water bottle or a cherry stone pillow. Cold relieves inflammatory pain. Cool packs that can be fixed with tape are suitable for this, but never directly on the skin, otherwise frostbite will occur.

Get relief by incorporating simple stretching exercises into your daily routine (see further down in the text). Tense muscles will relax, ligaments, tendons and fascia will become more elastic and the shoulder will be easier to move again.

Try to clear your head every now and then. Give yourself breaks throughout the day to relax. All you need to do is lift your eyes from your computer and look into the distance for a few minutes, take a short walk at lunchtime or chat with a colleague over coffee.

Five exercises to stretch your shoulder

Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Roll your shoulders in large circles from top to back, bottom to front. Try to see if it is easier to move both shoulders at the same time or one after the other. Repeat the exercise 10 times and then change direction. This exercise relaxes the muscles and improves mobility.

Stretch your right arm straight out in front of your body. Grab your right elbow with your left hand and pull it towards your body. Hold this position for 30 seconds and then switch sides. This exercise relaxes and stretches the shoulder muscles.

Stand upright again, legs shoulder-width apart. Let your arms hang down relaxed. Slowly raise your shoulders towards your ears, hold the tension for three seconds and then let your arms sink. Repeat the exercise 10 times. The exercise relaxes your shoulder muscles.

Raise your right arm above your head. Bend your elbow so that your hand goes behind your back and your palm rests on your spine. Use your left hand to gently press your right elbow down. Hold this position for 30 seconds and then switch sides. The exercise mainly stretches the triceps.

Get into a quadruped position. Pass your right arm under your left arm, turn your head to the left and touch the floor with your right shoulder and head. Stretch your arm out to the side as far as possible. Hold this position for 30 seconds and then switch sides. The exercise stretches the shoulders and upper back.

Source: Stern

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