Stress hurts: Women who lead demanding lives are more than twice as likely to suffer from aches and pains as women with less hectic lives, according to 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. You're likely familiar with the dreaded tension headache, but we've uncovered four more spots where women tend to feel stress and we've got tips for targeted relief.
Your neck and shoulders
- How stress strikes: You have soreness that starts at your neck and radiates across your shoulders. Women with high-pressure desk jobs are 54 percent more likely to have these symptoms than workers under less strain, a recent Canadian study shows. Hunching over in front of a computer and cradling a phone between your ear and shoulder make you more susceptible. Other habits, such as lugging a heavy handbag or carrying your baby in a front or back carrier, can add to the strain.
- What to do: Lighten your load. Adopt an essentials-only policy for your bags and put your baby in a stroller for long treks. At your desk, use forearm and wrist rests a practice shown to lower your risk of neck and shoulder pain by 49 percent. The rests realign your body to prevent awkward postures that put pressure on your upper body. In addition, stretch by doing shoulder shrugs and head turns for a minute or two every half hour.
Your face and jaw
- How stress strikes: Your jaw feels tender and tight; the pain is worse when you chew. "Many people respond to tension by unknowingly clenching their jaws or grinding their teeth during sleep," says Penny Tenzer, M.D., an associate professor at the University of Miami.
- What to do: See your dentist to find out if grinding is the culprit. If it is, you can be fitted for a plastic mouthpiece that you wear every night while you sleep to keep you from grinding and putting pressure on your jaw. Also, practice keeping jaw muscles loose, with teeth slightly apart and your tongue curled behind your upper teeth.
Your lower back
- How stress strikes: The ache centers on the small of your back and gets worse when you're in certain positions. One often overlooked cause: traffic. "Your whole body is tense, and sitting in one position for a long period of time puts added strain on overworked muscles," says Tenzer.
- What to do: Drivers who regularly use a lumbar support pillow, which helps to decrease pressure on your lower back, are almost half as likely to have lower-back pain as those who don't, according to a Harvard University study. Adjusting the angle of your car's seat and your office chair to greater than 91 degrees can also help.
- How stress strikes: You have abdominal cramps. You may also suffer from diarrhea and/or constipation as well as a feeling that you haven't finished a bowel movement. These symptoms signal irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which can come and go depending on your stress levels. IBS is twice as common in women as in men.
- What to do: Large meals that are high in fat may trigger cramping and diarrhea, so try to eat smaller portions of healthy foods at regular intervals. Drink six to eight glasses of water each day and take a daily soluble fiber supplement, such as Citrucel or Metamucil, to keep stools soft and easy to pass.
Relieve Stress, Hurt Less
- Sleep eight hours a night. You'll be less vulnerable to the mental stress that can bring on headaches and IBS.
- Meditate. Just 20 minutes a day can slash the severity of your aches by 28 percent and your feelings of anxiety by 44 percent. For how-to meditation tips, visit uvm.edu/health/mindfulness.html.
- Exercise 30 minutes daily. It reduces levels of stress hormones and triggers the production of beta-endorphins chemicals that decrease pain and help you relax.
- See your doctor if pain continues for more than a few weeks. Severe stress can be eased with medications. Plus, there may be a medical explanation beyond stress.