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Anxiety and Neck Pain: Causes and Solutions

Vivian Okirie, M.D.
Anxiety and Neck Pain: Causes and Solutions

Stress causes many different issues to the body, and each person experiences stress differently. When you suffer from anxiety, you constantly put your body through long-term stress, which can have both immediate and long lasting effects. When your body is in “fight or flight” mode, it generally means it is releasing stress hormones (especially adrenaline and cortisol) that can create muscle tension and an overall feeling of unpleasantness. This only adds to your existing stress and/or anxiety.

Neck pain is one of the most common physical symptoms of persistent anxiety. It does not occur in everyone, but a significant portion of sufferers experience some degree of neck pain that can range from slightly irritating to severe. 

Anxiety Increases Neck Pain Risk

Several factors can increase your likelihood of neck pain. If your neck pain is severe or impeding your way of life, it is advised that you visit your primary care provider. Other issues such as whiplash, a herniated disk, arthritis, etc. can all present as neck pain but require medical intervention. As always, if your pain is sudden and extreme, seek medical treatment as soon as possible to decrease the chance of further damage. 

What Causes Anxiety Neck Pain?

The main cause of neck pain appears to be tension. During extremely anxious moments, your muscles contract and tense up significantly. Whenever you hear of individuals needing to get back or neck massages for “knots” in their muscles, it is often due to stress-induced muscle tension. This muscle tension especially targets the neck, shoulders, and back. The more anxiety you undergo, the more your tension may cause significant pain and discomfort. 

Mindset means everything, especially in anxiety sufferers. Many people get muscle tension in their neck even if they do not have anxiety; however, those with anxiety tend to be more prone to noticing and focusing on it. Unfortunately, anxiety can cause people to fixate more on negative sensations unintentionally. This can make the neck pain feel more severe than it would to someone without anxiety, despite the pain being similar objectively. 

General Neck Pain and Anxiety

For similar reasons, those with anxiety may be more prone to having greater degrees of neck discomfort than those without anxiety. Mild to moderate neck pain is common without having any health problems; it can be the result of sitting in chairs all day, sleeping in uncomfortable positions, looking down too long (especially on cell phones), not stretching, etc. 

If you do not have anxiety, you might pass this off as a normal ache or pain that commonly occurs to everyone. However, if you have anxiety you might be more sensitive to physical sensations and unable to focus on anything else. Those of you who have panic attacks can have more heightened discomfort. The degree of mental energy you place on your neck may increase the pain and possibly worsen anxiety. 

Neck Discomfort and Panic Attacks

Those with panic disorder can have feelings of neck tension they believe to be pain, but may actually just be discomfort leading to worse feelings. For example, anxiety sufferers may perceive that they have trouble holding up their head, almost as if their neck is weak. 

It is not clear why anxiety causes this problem, but it is quite common to those with panic attacks. As advised, if your pain and/or discomfort is moderate or severe and stopping you from performing your daily activities, please visit your primary care provider. 

How to Control Neck Pain From Anxiety

Generally, when anxiety causes neck pain through muscle tension, the best thing to do is to control the muscle tension first and anxiety second. Most anxiety symptoms require you to respond to the anxiety directly in order for the symptoms to go away, but muscle tension has a tendency to linger. This means that additional treatments might be needed. Consider the following: 

These strategies make it possible to reduce some of the effects of muscle tension on your body. You should also make sure you continue to sit with good posture, stretch regularly, and sleep comfortably. Regular pain may feel more severe if you have anxiety; so reducing the likelihood of pain can decrease your chances of muscle tension. But of course, if you do not address your anxiety directly, many of these symptoms will return. Overall, that is why it is best to develop a strategy to properly manage your anxiety. 

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