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Tension, Stress, and Pain

We know that stress and tension have long term effects on health. But they can also have widespread effects on the musculoskeletal system in the short term. Left unchecked, stress can lead to headaches, jaw pain, even abdominal pain.

Breathing helps tension in the body

How Breathing Changes under Tension

Efficient breathing mostly recruits the diaphragm. This sheet of muscle attaches to the lower ribs and sits under the lungs like a parachute. When you take a deep breath in, the diaphragm moves down, creating space for the lungs to inflate. When we are stressed, the diaphragm is one of the muscles that commonly gets tight. A tight diaphragm moves less, making it harder to breathe deeply.

This is where the accessory muscles of breathing come in (labelled AMoB on the diagram above). These muscles are much smaller than the diaphragm, and they work on the upper ribs and collar bone. They can be recruited to do a similar job to the diaphragm: make space for the lungs to inflate. But they are much less efficient at it, easily becoming fatigued without achieving a huge difference.

When these muscles are overworking, you might find that you keep your shoulders raised without realising. As the muscles also attach around the neck and base of the skull, you might develop aches and pains around here. Tightness in the neck can lead to some headaches too. Other muscles involved attach to the upper back, and can be responsible for strange, intermittent upper back pain. Combined with local pain in other areas mentioned, symptoms can be quite worrying for someone who’s already under stress.

Tension and the TMJ

We’ve spoken before about the TMJ or jaw joint. The patterns of tight muscles mentioned above can have an impact on the jaw too. Sometimes this is a direct pull on the jaw, requiring other muscles to tighten up to keep the balance. Other times, tension leads to clenching or grinding the teeth, which puts further pressure on the jaw joint.

Either way, tension can result in jaw pain or clicking. These symptoms may come and go, or they might persist even when your stressful period has passed. The tension in the muscles around the joint can cause displacement of the cartilage disc within the joint, which can explain the longer term symptoms. This too can become a cycle, with the tight muscle irritating the disc and vice versa.

How Stress Affects Pain

Pain is a complex thing, and it can be affected by factors like stress. Chronic pain in particular is closely linked to stress and anxiety.

Osteopaths are holistic. Not just mechanically, like how we connect your tight shoulders to your headaches. Beyond that, we look at the psycho-social parts of a person too.

How Your Osteopath Can Help

The major changes to breathing can often be improved quickly once they’re identified. Direct work to the diaphragm can help restore those deep breaths for a start. We can also help you with breathing exercises. These have the dual benefit of making the diaphragm work, and as a calming exercise. Often both of these effects are needed to start making real changes.

We can also help with other affected areas. The jaw joint can be very receptive to treatment of the surrounding muscles. We might also give you exercises to do at home. The jaw can be a tricky area, as patients are often unsure who to speak to about jaw problems. We can examine and treat the joint like any other, and if appropriate, ask you to speak to your dentist about additional support.


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