As if pain and discomfort that comes to us from "outside" sources, such as a fall on the pavement or back pain caused by heavy lifting, isn't enough, there are times we must deal with the aches and pains of muscle tension, which can be the most troublesome of all. That's because most muscle tension is self-induced—the physiological result of lingering stress we feel in the form of worry, anxiety, or fear. Tension headaches are just one piece of that puzzle. Among the other common areas of our bodies afflicted with pain when muscle tension hits are the neck and shoulders, face and jaw, lower back and stomach. Among women, per webmd.com, those who lead demanding (more-stressful) lives, have double the incidence of aches and pains than women with less-hectic lives do, per a recent study. "When stressed, your body produces hormones that increase muscle tension and pain sensitivity," says Jay Winner, M.D., author of Stress Management Made Simple.
The Fight-or-Flight Response ImpactWhat's involved is the familiar fight-or-flight response in people, which is our body's response to a stress-inducing threat, such as being confronted by a mugger or encountering a large snake slithering across the trail during a hike through the woods. As described by anxietycentre.com, in such a case our body secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones then speed toward specific areas to produce physiological, psychological and emotional changes—to include muscle contraction—that heighten our body's capacity to deal with a threat. The problem in terms of muscle tension comes not in the immediate response but in a sustained response over time in which our muscles stay semi-contracted for an extended time, eventually producing lingering pain, such as in our lower back. This might involve the kind of stress experienced in the workplace, where the source of the stress—say, a deteriorating relationship with a coworker or fear of being laid off amid office rumors—can't just be whisked away with a snap of the fingers. Or the problem could be back at home, with a family in turmoil. Such stress "may change the body's nervous system by constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow to the soft tissues, including muscles, tendons and nerves in the back," says spine-health.com. "This process causes a decrease in oxygen and a buildup of biochemical waste products in the muscles, resulting in muscle tension, spasm and back pain." There is no one-size-fits-all aspect of muscle-tension discomfort in terms of endurance or type of pain felt. Symptoms could appear and disappear for just a few moments, or it could last for minutes or hours, or the muscles could be tense or painful indefinitely. The pain can be debilitating enough to send sufferers to bed for days at a time. Muscle tension pain is most often felt as a dull ache, but it can also involve sharp pain, shooting pain, long-lasting pains and rapid (throbbing) pain.
Methods to Reduce Muscle TensionHere are some methods that have proven useful in reducing or eliminating the painful symptoms of muscle tension:
- Hot bath or shower. Soothing for tense muscles. Shower is usually preferred because it's quicker.
- Stretching or yoga. Can improve how your muscles feel.
- Meditation. Twenty minutes a day can cut the severity of aches by 28 percent, or so says webmd.com.
- Thirty minutes of exercise a day. For one thing, exercise triggers the production of beta-endorphins—which can cut down on pain and promote relaxation.
- Massage. Especially effective if done by a professional skilled at finding and working out the knots in your muscles.
- Over-the-counter painkillers and supplements.