Could Stress Be Aggravating Your Sore Hand Or Wrist? Research Says It might

Wrist : Hand Pain And Stress

Our hands and wrists are beautiful pieces of natural engineering. And they may be the secret to our success as a species even more so than our brains. Our ability to grip objects easily allows us to perform tasks other beasts simply cannot consider. The extreme utility of our hands and wrists means however that they’re used for nearly everything we do.

Because our hands and wrists are so vital, they’re prone to wear and tear, which can of course result in pain. Things that we once loved to do can all become unnecessarily tricky.

Wrist and hand pains have a physical basis. The tendency towards heavy use means they are prone to developing scar tissue, fascial adhesions and other wear and tear that all require treatment. However, you might also be surprised to learn that psychological stress can aggravate your hand and wrist pain greatly.

Modern pain research suggests that psychological and emotional components can play a major role in developing chronic pain. These non-physical elements help to create new neural circuits, rewiring our brain’s circuitry to perpetuate this sensation we call “pain”. Put simply, we all get pain, but stress can modulate our pain perception and make us more susceptible to it. 

In this blog, we’ll break down how stress might be modifying the intensity of your hand and wrist pain. 

The Link Between Stress And Pain

Stress is a normal part of life – you become stressed when you face hard situations or have a lot to deal with. 

That’s because stress has a vital function. If we’re under threat, stress gets us ready to take action. Similar to how acute pain lets us know when something is wrong in the body. 

When they function as they should, stress and pain are positive additions to your life, helping to keep you safe. However, if you’re constantly stressed, stress can become chronic. 

A chronically stressed person has an overactive nervous system – one that’s on edge for the next email from our boss, the next phone call from a friend, or even the next lockdown. This overactive nervous system can be the tipping point and begin the cycle of chronic pain.

There might be an event, such as a gym injury, that brings on your pain, or it might creep on over time. However, when the pain does start, it’s likely to feel more painful than if you weren’t stressed. A 2015 meta-study published in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences found that we feel pain more intensely when we’re stressed. In particular, negative emotions heighten the impact of stress on pain. 

A study that illustrates this fantastically is one carried out by Boeing. In the study, Boeing teamed up with researchers to identify risk factors for reporting acute back pain at work. 3,020 aircraft employees took part in the study, so this wasn’t a small sample! The researchers found that heavy lifting or repetitive work didn’t predict back pain, but feeling underappreciated did. That’s right, the workers who experienced the worst back pain were the ones who felt chronically underappreciated. 

So, if you’re stressed, you’re more likely to get pain in the first place. That pain might be bad too, which is in itself stressful. 

Once you’re in pain, stress can keep the cycle of pain going. Research indicates that stress influences people’s labelling and attribution of pain. If you’re stressed, you might be more likely to fixate on your pain or label it as something that’s “really bad” instead of “a bit annoying”. 

The crux of developing pain and then fixating on it is that our brain and nervous system are plastic, meaning they’re really good at forming habits. Research suggests our brains can undergo a sensitivity adjustment if we’ve been experiencing pain for a while. Essentially, our brain becomes very good at detecting danger and sending pain as a warning signal. So, although you’re desperately trying to avoid pain, your brain becomes better at creating it.

Does this mean you’re not in pain? Not at all. Your pain is genuine. Could you have reacted differently? No, your brain and body were doing what has helped humans survive for millions of years. It’s essential to make the distinction that just because your mood impacts your perception of pain, it doesn’t mean that pain is your “fault” because you’re stressed. Instead, your constant stress reflects how our wiring doesn’t match our modern way of life.

However, what’s important to take away is that our perception of pain can be changed by how we’re feeling. Stress and pain are two parts of the same underlying neurobiological system and are interconnected. We still don’t understand the relationship entirely. However, if you’re experiencing chronic stress, it may very well be aggravating your wrist pain or hand pain.

How Stress Might Aggravate Your Hand And Wrist Pain

So, we understand how stress might impact our perception of pain, but how does it impact hand and wrist pain specifically.

A 2003 review of pain in the forearm, wrist and hand listed the below as some ways in which ‘stress’ may promote musculoskeletal illness: 

– Alter how we work to increase the mechanical load.

– Reset the tone in muscles, causing them to fatigue more readily.

– Extend the duration of muscle tension and reduce the rest period (delay unwinding).

Research has also looked at specific stressors linked to hand and wrist pain. According to the same 2003 review, some of the stressors related to hand and wrist pain include: 

– Occupational factors (e.g. time-pressure, overtime, work overload)

– Emotional job demands (e.g. heavy responsibilities).

– Monotonous work and low job control (e.g. lack of autonomy and flexibility).

– Low social support from peers or supervisors, 

– Low job satisfaction

– Perceived job stress 

So, it could be that you’re stressed because you have a deadline or KPI in your repetitive job, or you could be dealing with lots of responsibilities at home. Because you’re stressed, you’re more likely to move in a way that promotes pain and take fewer breaks, leading to overuse/injury and pain. Once you’re in pain, your brain is more likely to amplify that pain, causing you more stress. In short, a perfect pain recipe!

What Can You Do To Reduce Stress When Managing Hand And Wrist Pain

Taken together, the idea that stress might be aggravating your hand and wrist pain isn’t something that you should dismiss. There’s a clear link between how we feel on the inside and what we experience physically. So what can you do about it?

Although stress can aggravate your hand and wrist pain, remember, you will have embodied this stress physically too. Tight muscles, scar tissue and tendinopathy, can all arise when we’re doing a task in a repetitive, stressed manner. To be pain-free, you’ll need treatment for your physical symptoms while you work on reducing your stress. Often, actively treating your pain also helps you feel as if you’re in control of it, reducing the control pain has on your life. 

Exercising regularly, getting proper nutrition and sleeping eight hours a night can all do wonders to help manage stress. Be mindful of assuming that the answers to your pain are found within treatment interventions alone. Imagine we believed that fillings were the only care needed for our re-occuring tooth decay and weren’t willing to look at our sugar intake!

Recent research has shown that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) effectively treats hand and arm pain conditions. However, it’s important to note that this research also suggests that cognitive-behavioural therapy is only helpful in conjunction with evidence-based physical treatments. There are other treatments that can be incredibly beneficial for stress too; at our clinic we use brain wave entrainment which utilises LED lights that can switch off stress and pain pathways in the brain.

How much is your pain impacting your life? Is it worth working a job that’s affecting your health and overall life satisfaction? Sometimes, if our bodies are telling us that we’re not happy, it’s helpful to take the hint and reassess what’s important to us. Of course, this is a very different process for everyone. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked if you think there may be a link between your hand and wrist pain and stress.

How We Approach Wrist & Hand Pain

We know that stress can aggravate wrist and hand pain. However, it’s important to remember that if you’re experiencing pain, there will also be an underlying physical basis for your pain. Because we use your hands and wrists often, they’re prone to developing scar tissue, fascial adhesions and other evidence of wear and tear that all require treatment. So, if you’re currently experiencing pain, we certainly can help.

We aim to provide legitimately transformative healthcare in a welcoming & uplifting environment. For us, genuine care, real rapport, and clear communication are not bonus features – they are healthcare fundamentals! That’s why we not only look at the physical symptoms of your pain, but also consider how factors like stress can also play a role. 

Our process could be described as a ‘very hands-on’ style of pain management. Twenty-five years spent treating pain ‘on the front line’ has taught us the value of this treatment style. 

We have a wide range of technologies, including shockwave therapy, laser therapy, Graston and trigger point release. Which are scientifically backed to help improve hand and wrist pain.

Contact our team today to book in for an initial consultation if you think you might be suffering from wrist and hand pain so we can get started to help you live a pain-free day. 

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