Neck pain is an extremely common condition that most people will experience at some point in their lives. While treatments like medications, physical therapy, chiropractic care, and sometimes surgery are often effective for relieving neck pain, some people find that their pain persists despite trying these conventional therapies. This has led many to wonder whether psychotherapy could be a helpful addition for managing persistent neck discomfort.
Though it may seem unusual at first, there are several reasons why psychotherapy is worth considering for neck pain:
The Mind-Body Connection
Research has demonstrated that there is an intimate connection between the mind and body. Our thoughts, moods, and emotions do not only exist in our heads – they can manifest in physical symptoms throughout the body. People with chronic pain often get stuck in cycles of negative thoughts and emotions like stress, anxiety, depression, frustration, fear, and anger. These psychological factors can make pain pathways in the nervous system more sensitive, essentially amplifying pain signals.
Seeing a therapist provides an outlet to address the cognitive and emotional components related to pain. This can help break cycles of negative thinking, reduce stress and anxiety, refocus attention away from the pain, and improve your overall mindset regarding your condition. Making these psychological adjustments can calm down overly-sensitized pain networks and essentially help “turn down the volume” on pain.
Teaching Coping Techniques
Living with chronic neck pain often means coping with discomfort, difficulty moving, sleep disturbances, reduced productivity, and limitations to daily activities. These lifestyle infringements can take a major toll mentally and emotionally. People with neck pain frequently feel frustrated, discouraged, stressed, irritable, anxious, or down.
In therapy, you can learn concrete techniques for coping emotionally and psychologically with the effects of neck pain. Therapists teach important skills like energy management, prioritizing/pacing activities, relaxation techniques, focusing attention away from pain, and preventing cycles of negative thoughts. Support groups can also provide great insight into how others manage the mental strain of neck discomfort. Learning to cope effectively reduces distress, allows you to better manage pain, and improves your overall wellbeing.
For many chronic pain patients, a major obstacle is fear of movement and re-injury. This fear prompts avoidance of exercise and physical activity which can actually exacerbate pain and stiffness long-term. Through therapy, you can identify unhelpful thought patterns like catastrophizing (e.g. “if I move my neck it may break”) that fuel fear-avoidance behavior. Your therapist will help challenge those negative thinking habits and replace them with more realistic thoughts that are conducive to gradually resuming movement.
With professional support, you can build up greater self-efficacy regarding your ability to be active. Your therapist may also collaborate with your physician or physical therapist to create a tailored exercise plan that allows you to safely challenge yourself within your limits. Re-engaging with movement helps build strength, flexibility, and function which plays a key role in managing neck discomfort.
Improving Sleep Habits
Sleep disturbances are very common with chronic neck pain, whether it is trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up frequently. Poor sleep tends to exacerbate sensitivity to pain and can throw off your body’s natural pain modulation system. Research shows that improving sleep quality and duration is linked to lower pain levels, so optimizing sleep habits should be part of any neck pain management plan.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective methods for dealing with insomnia. Therapists will help identify thoughts, worries, and behaviors that interfere with sleep (like excessive screen time) and replace them with healthier sleep hygiene habits. Other techniques like guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, and cognitive restructuring can make it easier to wind down at night. Better sleep allows your body and brain to more effectively regulate pain.
Enhancing Stress Management
Between worrying about pain and trying to manage responsibilities, neck discomfort can be an enormous source of stress. This stress taxes your body’s natural resources that aid with pain modulation. Therapists can teach critical stress management skills through methods like diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, cognitive restructuring, and scheduling pleasant events or activities. Stress management boosts your overall resilience which may help prevent flare-ups from minor stresses that exacerbate neck pain. It also empowers you to break cycles of chronic stress and muscle tension that influence neck discomfort.
Improving Interpersonal Relationships
Living with persistent neck pain often negatively impacts relationships – it can be very isolating and frustrating for family members as you are unable to participate in activities as before. You may start to feel like a burden on loved ones which breeds resentment. Therapy provides a space to openly communicate your limitations or things you need help with while also discussing how pain is impacting your relationships and intimacy. Strengthening relationships decreases isolation, builds your support network, and enhances quality of life.
While psychotherapy may seem unconventional, it can be a powerful adjunct for managing the physical, cognitive, and emotional dimensions of chronic neck pain. Psychotherapy helps identify and shift unhelpful thought patterns, enhances coping skills and self-efficacy, reduces fear avoidance, improves sleep and stress management, and strengthens relationships. Integrating psychotherapy into your neck pain treatment regimen can optimize your function and quality of life. Though neck pain may not disappear completely, psychotherapy equips you with the tools to thrive in spite of discomfort.