The link between stress and pain

Stress and pain… two really fun things to talk about, right? Two REALLY important things to talk about, especially how they relate to each other. 

Many, many people go to Physical Therapists, Chiropractors, acupuncturists and doctors and just want to be fixed. They are in pain or discomfort and they are done. They don’t want it anymore and they want the quickest and fastest way to get out of pain-- rightfully so. Pain is an unpleasant experience at best and is downright miserable at other times. Believe me I get it-- ACL repairs, MCL tears, nerve pain, post strep arthritis, chronic back pain, hip pain-- I’ve tried it all (research to help you all??? haha) The thing with pain is it is multifactorial and it can’t always be just “fixed” and call it a day.  There is no magic pill or giant band aid to make it miraculously disappear overnight (well, I guess there is but if you could guess I don’t really advocate for opioid abuse).

Healing from pain (physical and emotional) requires time, energy and effort. Three things most people are not willing to easily give up.  When healing from pain through an injury, having to give up these three things can be extremely stressful. In fact, the idea of being in pain or the experience of being in pain is a stressful experience which in turn exacerbates the pain you are already in-- creating a lovely pain stress cycle.  

Are you scratching your head right now and just wishing there was a magic pill?  I get it. Let’s break it down a little further.

Stress is a biological response to stressors on the body such as injury, infection and other pathology.
— Mezclak- Neuromatrix theory of pain

When your body is in pain, it is a stressful experience to your nervous system. As Mezclack states, stress is a biological response to stressors on the body such as injury, infection and pathologies. During an acute injury, your body is sending signals to your brain to tell it that there is damage occurring. This is a GOOD thing because it helps you stay out of too much danger and seek care when needed.  The problem is when you experience pain for a long period of time it can throw off these pain signals and at times, they don’t turn off. Even when the damage is no long occurring. The original stress response is good and it is helpful for our body to recover from injury, infection and disease.

The problem is that in our daily lives we are inundated with stressful experiences.  You snoozed to long, you dropped your coffee, the baby is crying, your roomie didn’t clean up the kitchen, traffic, your boss is yelling at you. Now I don’t have an exact statistic but I can guarantee that most of us experience at least one stressful experience a week, if not more. These outward stressors put our body on high alert and at times, increasing our biological stress response and disrupting the nervous system.  Add an injury to insult (#punintended) and you are once again, ready for that magic pill.

Have you ever had an injury and notice the pain is worse some days opposed to others? Do you have a difficult time figuring out what exactly flared up your injury?

Well, did you ever think to look at your daily lifestyle and habits?


Let me tell you a story about one of my favorite patients.

This woman, let’s call her M, came to me with achilles pain and ankle pain.  She had been participating in Orange theory 5-6x a week and had lost over 60 pounds over the past five years. She loved working out but she had this nagging pain that was preventing her from running.  She hadn’t thought anything of it and stuck to the elliptical and bike but now it was bothering her while walking. She was getting married in 3 months and all she wanted to do was dance on her wedding day pain-free.  There were a lot of ups and downs throughout her rehab but she was steadily getting better while continuing to exercise. At one point we hit a plateau and an interesting cycle. It went something like this:


M: WOW I feel amazing. I had a great weekend with my fiance, we went bike riding on the charles. Physical THerapy is magic

T/W/Th: work, orangetheory classes, wedding planning

Friday: My ankle is KILLING me and you won’t believe what happened this week. My dog at my engagement ring, the photographer fell through and my fiances kids are sick with the flu. I barely have time for work and I can’t exercise because my ankle is bothering me. When will this pain go away?

This repeated itself for two weeks before I sat M down and had talk about how much stress her body was under.  Stress from constantly exercising, from wedding planning, from taking care of children, from work. She was being bombarded by stress left and right. We had a great talk and came up with a plan. She would start taking 1-2 rest days from orangetheory and she would replace one class with yoga. She would also cut herself some slack and not beat herself up if her ankle was painful.  She started asking for more help with wedding planning and using stress reduction techniques such as meditation and mindfulness. Flash forward a month and while there were ups and downs she was dancing and her wedding completely pain-free.

The thing with pain is it is multifactorial and it can’t always be just “fixed” and call it a day.  There is no magic pill or giant band aid to make it miraculously disappear overnight

This is just one example of how outside stressors can influence our pain and discomfort experience. I am not immune to this experience either even though I logically know the pain science and cause behind this pain and discomfort.  I have this spot on my upper back which I like to call my “stress spot”. If I am ever pushing too hard, not taking enough time for sleep, self care or exercise, I get a dull ache on the left side of my middle back. If I ignore it, it radiates up through my upper trap and wraps around to my left pec. If I didn’t know any better, I would be concerned about a heart attack to be honest. The pain is intense and constant and frequently prevents me from sleeping. It first started when I started graduate school and was constant for the first 3 months.  Over the past 3-4 years, I have learned what triggers it AND I have learned overall how to listen to my body better. If I even BEGIN to feel that stress spot acting up, I take out all my self care tools, and stop, drop and meditate. I look at my schedule and see where I can take time for myself and where I can ask for help. I use it as a cue that my body needs more rest and that I haven’t been listening. WHile in the past, I pushed through, now I slow down.

My experience can be a common experience for most people especially if you have dealt with a chronic injury in the past.  While it can be frustrating and annoying, it’s actually a good thing. These stress spots are your bodies way of telling you to slow down. The more you can be aware of these feelings of discomfort, the more you can take care of your mind and your body.  The more you can listen to your body, the more productive and effective you will be in life.

This is all to say that stress and pain are intricately linked together. The science is there and I will share it at another point but at this time, the important thing for you to know is that stress and pain are linked. That your daily habits, lifestyle and experiences and increase or decrease your pain experience. It is important that you know that pain is a multifactorial experience therefore the daily habits, experiences and rituals in your life can create positive and negative impacts on your pain experience. This is neither good or bad--- it is information to help you get better in touch with your body. The better we can listen to your bodies, the better we can feel each day.

My goal is to help others feel good in your body.  One way to do this is to help you develop a deeper connection with your body and be able to better listen to your body.  Understanding the role of stress and pain as well as the role of your daily habits, lifestyle and routines can help you dive deeper into your relationship with your body and really tune into what is going on.

Sometimes play is the best medicine

Sometimes play is the best medicine

Want to learn more about how to develop a deep connection with your physical and emotional body?  Book a FREE 30 minute consult with me and learn more about Performance coaching-- how to best optimize your body and mind so you can live a good life and feel good in your body everyday.

Kerry McGinnComment