Photo by Brian Canniff – UltiPhotos.com

Stress in life is inevitable, but how we handle stress can make a difference on the way it affects us. Besides the obvious benefits of exercise that we’re all familiar with, such as improving our physical condition and fighting diseases, exercise can also help to keep our stress levels at bay. And while the negative impacts of stress are numerous, what many people don’t realize is the role that physical therapy can play in helping to eliminate the negative side effects of stress.

Many patients visit our centers as a result of the pain and dysfunction which results from stress. A common side effect of stress that many individuals experience is muscle tension, which can cause headaches, neck pain and back pain. Tension in muscles can also cause adhesions in muscle fibers which subsequently cause pain. When tension increases, it becomes difficult for fluid to follow through soft tissue and this creates a stiffness that many of us feel.

Fortunately, this is where a physical therapist can step in and educate patients on posture, ergonomics and exercises to alleviate muscle stress. Listed below are just a few techniques that our physical therapists use with our patients to reduce and eliminate stress-related problems.

  • Aerobic Exercise – Many of us have experienced a “runner’s high” when exercising. This sensation occurs when our body releases endorphins, the “feel-good” chemical in our body which acts as a natural pain reliever and stress reducer. For those individuals who don’t like to run, almost any activity which increases the heart-rate, such as a good hike, circuit training or a game of pick-up basketball, will also do the job.
  • Upper Trapezius Stretch – When patients complain about carrying stress in their shoulders, these muscles are usually the culprit. Start this stretch by placing your left arm behind your back. With your right hand, gently pull your head toward your shoulder until you feel a stretch in your upper neck. Most patients are generally able to pull their ear to their shoulder. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds and perform five repetitions on each side.
Upper Trapezius Stretch 2

Upper Trapezius Stretch

  • Chin Nods – Stiff muscles in the back of your neck and head can often cause headaches and pain. Chin nods, or chin tucks, will target this area and help to alleviate stress-related problems. This stretch serves as a great postural reminder and is an easy stretch to perform at work. To perform this stretch, gently tuck your chin downward toward your chest until you feel a stretch at the base of your skull and upper neck. Hold the stretch for five seconds and perform 15 repetitions. 
  • Trigger Point Exercises – A foam roll or tennis ball are tools that can be used to target trigger points which are generating pain in your upper back and neck. With the foam roll lengthwise, lie on your back with the foam roll between your shoulder blades. Slowly roll side-to-side while applying pressure to the tender “knots” located between your shoulder blades. A firm ball such as a tennis ball or racquetball can be used in a similar manner. Standing against a wall, place the ball in between your shoulder blades and the wall. Using your legs to squat down, gently roll the ball up and down between your shoulder blades.
trigger point exercises

Trigger Point Exercises

While most of these techniques can be performed at home and will provide temporary relief, if your pain levels don’t subside, please visit a center conveniently located in your community for further consultation.

By: Armand DeThomas, DPT, is the center manager for NovaCare Rehabilitation’s Phoenixville, PA center.

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