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Why Happiness Can Alleviate Back Pain

Originally posted on November 17, 2011

Research has shown that gratitude leads to happiness and is associated with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. But what does that have to do with physical therapy?

As physical therapists, we are forever in search of ways to loosen tight muscles. And, knowing what causes muscle tightness is important in determining an appropriate treatment. Many situations cause tight muscles, and they all have some relation to stress. Whether mechanical or perceived, stress causes an unconscious and reflexive contraction that is designed to protect the individual.

A brief explanation of muscle and nerve physiology helps to understand how this works. For example, when you have a thought to open a door, your brain sends signals through the spinal cord to nerves that activate the appropriate muscles to initiate a movement. The muscle contraction is voluntary, a conscious action. Your arm moves to open the door.

But when the nervous system perceives pain or danger and there is not enough time to think about it, the unconscious reflex system is activated. It sends signals to the spinal cord, which activate muscles to protect the body from danger. Flinching is a good example of this reflex, as is moving your arms to shield your face from a ball. The reflex is unconscious because there is no “decision” made by you to move; your muscles create a contraction to protect you and the process circumvents your conscious mind.

The unconscious reflex system also responds to long lasting stress. Stress is simply a perceived or anticipated danger. When the body’s “danger” response is activated, nerves send those same signals down the spinal cord to the muscles, and the muscles contract. The muscles have no action to perform if the contraction results from an anticipated danger, but they continue to contract as long as the perception of danger is present. So if stress is present at a certain threshold, those muscles will remain tight and contracted.

Since gratitude has been associated with lower levels of stress, we can imagine that gratitude, by decreasing stress, can allow your muscles to relax. Happiness and tension just don’t go together. Happiness, in fact, is a wonderful stress reliever which can lead to lower blood pressure, better sleep and looser, more relaxed muscles.

Enjoy your holidays and may the gratitude you feel resonate through every muscle in your body!

Happy Thanksgiving from all your friends at ALTA

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