Can Stress Affect my Pain?

Can Stress Affect my Pain?

Can work stress affect the healing of a knee injury? Does losing a loved one make me more likely to have chronic pain?

When we have an injury, pain is a good thing. Yes, you heard that correctly! Pain is a response that allows us to avoid real or potential damage to our bodies. Without the perception of pain, we would have no idea what could be dangerous and damaging.

Stress, in a perfect world, is also a healthy adaptation that allows for alertness and optimal physical and mental function, when necessary. Unfortunately, none of us live in a perfect world. Our thoughts can spiral, and stress can easily escape our grasp and take over much of our mental energy.

When we are dealing with physical pain from injury, stress and mindset become significant predictors of recovery. Studies have shown that an overactive stress response can cause a significant and prolonged pain response. That is, when we are dealing with an unhealthy level of daily stress, we are more likely to suffer from an injury longer, and feel more pain from that particular injury. A significant stressor would then lead to a potentially significant increase in pain, and a prolonged unhealthy stress would then lead to a potentially prolonged feeling of pain. This is why some chronic pain cases occur long after an injury has “healed” on examination and imaging. The pain in these cases is still very real, but requires a more complex management strategy.

Fortunately, the opposite of all of this negativity is also true! Healthy stress management results in normal stress response, and healthy thoughts about pain and healing can lead to optimal injury recovery. It is important to speak to a trusted healthcare professional to understand your injury, pain, and form positive expectations for recovery.

Contributed by Peter Laidaw, Registered Physiotherapist,

Reference:  Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation

Phys Ther. 2014 Dec; 94(12): 1816–1825.

Published online 2014 Jul 17. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20130597

Kara E. Hannibal, Mark D. Bishop