One Day in the Jungle
Robert A. Hayden, DC, PhD
The holiday season is upon us. You can see the Christmas items on display where they have been since late summer. We skip over Thanksgiving, I suppose, since there is less commercial impact with Pilgrims. The holiday season brings some stressors into our lives, so it seems appropriate to talk about stress management in this issue.
I see the results of stress over and over again in the clinic. It manifests itself in the form of neck pain, shoulder pain, and headaches. Many people ask me why this occurs, so I have given it much thought and have formed a theory. Here is my wisdom.
One day long ago, one of our ancestors, Phnorg, was walking through the jungle when he encountered another of our ancestors, Ugh. A territorial dispute ensued, and since it was too early for lawyers or negotiated settlements, the squabble turned violent quickly. Epinephrine was secreted by each combatant, increasing strength in the muscles each will use to bludgeon the other, especially the upper back, shoulders, arms, and neck. Tempers and nostrils flared. Blood pressure, heart rate, and ventilation rates elevated. Blood flow to lungs and skeletal muscles increased, while flow to less important areas in a crisis, such as the kidneys and colon, decreased.
Phnorg grabbed a sharp stick, while Ugh grabbed a stone. Primal grunts and squeals broke out, disturbing multiple now-extinct species of birds, mammals, and reptiles. The noise from these undressed primates must have been frightful. Casualties in these disputes closely approximated 50%.
After a few decisive blows were struck, a winner emerged. Phnorg, the winner, retired to his cave, perhaps to eat the loser, and beat his chest in a victorious announcement that the territory was his. The dispute would be settled. The enemy, Ugh, was vanquished. The physiological fight-or-flight response was drawn to its natural conclusion and resolved. Phnorg slept deeply and safely next to a warm fire, fully relaxed and healing for the next day's fight for survival.
Fast forward a few millennia to today. You experience a confrontation at work. Your adversary has invaded your territory and you feel threatened. Immediately you will experience all the physiological reactions that Phnorg and Ugh had. Your pulse and respiratory rate will quicken. Epinephrine will flood your veins. Your face (likely, with less hair than Phnorg's) will flush, and you will perspire heavily to compensate for the heat you are generating. Your blood pressure will rise. Muscles will tense in your upper back, shoulders, arms, and neck as you prepare to bludgeon your adversary.
But, wait?this is 2007. You can't bludgeon people any more. We are "civilized" now. No matter how much your "Ugh" needs beating, you can't do it. Your physiological response to the stressor prepares you for combat that does not happen. Thus, there is no resolution to your response.
You may try to settle the dispute by sending memoranda, launching e-mails, or even appealing to perceived authority figures. You are convinced, however, that none of these solutions could be as satisfying as bludgeoning. At least then you would work through the anger.
Meanwhile, the muscles that are prepared to defend, or offend, are still geared for action. Those muscles are precisely the areas that send patients to chiropractors for relief. The resultant neck pain, back pain, and headaches are daily complaints among people in pain.
What is the solution? Well, I don't suggest mortal combat, but you can take steps to manage the stress that confronts you daily. If you do not successfully manage the stress in your life, it can lead to more than musculoskeletal issues. You can find yourself in psychological distress (depression), cardiovascular disease (heart troubles, hypertension), social distress (isolation, loneliness), or spiritual distress (loss of a sense of meaning). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recognizes that unresolved stress also leads to increased incidence of job-related injuries.
So, what are we to do when the stress of living gets us down? Specifically, what can you do to get rid of the stress-related neck pain, headaches, and muscle spasms in your upper back and shoulders? Here is my list of suggestions.
Take control of the stress you encounter. The jungle out there is full of Ughs. You may not be able to club Ugh, as much as he might deserve it, but you can beat him in other ways.