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Stress and pain - chicken or egg?

Do you feel physical pain because you are stressed, or do you feel stressed because you are in pain?


It can be a perplexing question.

The co-occurrence of stress or anxiety and pain is well documented in studies[i] but determining which comes first is as individual as the people who suffer from them.

Sometimes the cause is obvious, and brought on by emotional trauma or physical injury; while in many cases, especially as we age, repetitive injury and long-term stress and anxiety can present in a variety of symptoms.

While pain relief medications and exercise are a vital part of effective pain management, many people find that this is not enough.

Modern science is yet to fully understand how massage works, but what we do know is that massage has been used for thousands of years, by populations around the world to relax muscles, reduce tension and achieve relief from pain.

There are many documented attempts to understand the effects of massage and address the limitations of our understanding of the causes of chronic pain, but excessive and chronic anxiety is known to be a potent root cause for many pain symptoms including back pain,[ii] and probably neck pain.[iii]


Seek help from professionals

For chronic conditions, getting to the root cause of your pain or stress requires professional help.

Seeing your doctor to make sure that there is no serious underlying illness is vital if you are to understand your pain or stress and learn how to manage it most effectively.

Once you are sure that no underlying serious illness is involved, there are a variety of options apart from medication that many people try and report good results. For example, research[iv] has shown that older Australian women who experience chronic bodily pain, prefer a concurrent multimodality approach (accessing conventional treatments alongside massage therapy) to cope with their condition.

Other research[v] has shown that patients whose general practitioner has additional complementary and alternative medicine training have lower health care costs and mortality rates than those who do not. Reduced costs come from fewer hospital stays and fewer prescription drugs.

Contemporary research has also documented some of the positive effects of massage—here are a couple of examples involving anxiety,[vi] and reducing the symptoms of pain.[vii]


Try massage therapy or myotherapy

If you are going to try massage as part of your plan to manage your pain or stress, it is important to find a professional therapist that you trust, and feel comfortable talking to. This will help in assessing your condition and in developing a plan of treatment.

Professional therapists will talk to you about how stress and anxiety is often expressed in the body through tightness, stiff joints and localised pain.

Quiet music, the avoidance of bright light and a calm peaceful environment will help in achieving a relaxed state and for the therapeutic effects of the massage to have the most benefit.

The use of aromatic oils can also help with relaxation.

Points of physical tension are often then addressed through working on the ‘fascia’ which is a thin tissue surrounding muscle. Dry needling may also be used as part of trigger point tension relief therapy on the fascia. Bringing more blood and oxygen to the affected or localised area of pain and the use of lymphatic drainage techniques can also help.

Therapeutic massage and the use of hot stones or applying heat are also common practices that can have a very beneficial effect on your state of mind, and help you forget your worries for a time.

While massage is not cure, it can provide relief of pain and stress. It provides a time and space to achieve a more relaxed state, and feelings of wellbeing, which can play an important part in helping to remain positive and in managing your stress and anxiety.


Find a professional massage or myotherapist therapist

To find a professional massage therapist close to you, visit the Australian Massage Directory provided by Massage & Myotherapy Australia, the association for professional therapists.


Learn more about therapeutic massage

The lymphatic system removes interstitial fluid from tissues by absorbing and transporting fatty acids and fats as chyle, a milky bodily fluid, from the digestive system and white blood cells to and from the lymph nodes into the bones.

Myofascial Dry Needling uses extremely fine needles, to deactivate and release active trigger points.

Trigger Point Therapy involves the compression of trigger points, causing the muscle fibres and nervous system to relax.

Aromatherapy is the application of essential oils combined with relaxation massage.

Hot stones warm and relax the muscles, which allows for deeper massage techniques to be applied if required.

Therapeutic massage assists people who seek relief from aches, pains and stress-related symptoms.

As a guide, therapists who provide therapeutic massage for people looking for relaxation and stress relief should hold a Certificate IV in Massage Therapy Practice.


[i] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/da.20600

[ii] https://www.painscience.com/tutorials/low-back-pain.php

[iii] https://www.painscience.com/tutorials/neck-pain.php

[iv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15195040

[v] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3482459/

[vi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27464321

[vii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4925170/

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