What is stress and how does stress affect our bodies? Part 2: Neck Muscles & Headaches

As the principal physiotherapist at IceFire Physiotherapy, I have found patients who wish to discuss the many ways that stress affects their bodies. A lot can be discussed during physiotherapy treatment on someone’s neck or shoulders.

Just as our bodies have been designed by the Creator in such a way that great sadness causes us to cry, so to have our bodies been designed to physically react when we experience certain types of stress. Unfortunately the decay of genomes over successive generations means that our bodies, and the organisms within our bodies, no longer behave in an ideal manner.

There are all types of stress that we encounter every day. Psychosocial stress is what most people would refer to as negative or bad stress. Psychosocial stress can be induced in someone by a stranger speaking to them in a very authoritative voice in order to get them to do a task, while at the same time not providing any positive feedback about their performance.

This and other forms of psychosocial effects often cause my patients to feel headaches and pain in their upper trapezius muscles, neck and shoulder. Being a physiotherapist for 25 years I have treated many hundreds of people with neck pain related to stress.

The trapezius muscles are very large, but in the upper part of the body they connect the right and left shoulder blades/scapulae (in particular the spine of the scapula), our collar bones (the clavicles), the base of the back of our skull (the occipital bone), the bony spinous processes of the neck vertebrae from C1 to C6 via the nuchal ligament (ligamentum nuchae), and directly onto the spinous processes of C7 to T12 . So a combination of neck pain, shoulder pain and headache can often be found. Headaches caused by problems in the neck are called neck induced headaches, or more technically speaking cervicogenic headaches. Although there are many types of headaches one survey revealed that about 18% of people with headaches have the cervicogenic type of headache.[1]

Many of these neck induced headaches will be related to problems in the neck muscles, including the upper trapezius muscle.

Patients talk about finding ‘knots’ in the upper trapezius muscles, which is simply a way of saying that some of the muscle cells are working too hard. One study has found a reason for this excessive level of activity when a person is under psychosocial stress. It seems in part to be due to a decrease in the amount of the normal inhibitory action produced by nerves in the reticulospinal tract. Posture 2 also greatly affects the upper trapezius muscles.


  1. N Nilsson The prevalence of cervicogenic headache in a random population sample of 20-59 1 year olds. Spine (Phila Pa 1976), 1995 Sep 1;20(17):1884-8.
  2. RJ Marker et al. Psychosocial stress alters the strength of reticulospinal input to the human 2 upper trapezius. Journal of Neurophysiology, 2017, 117(1): 457–466. doi: 10.1152/jn.00448.2016

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