5 Surprising Ways Stress Can Land You in the ER

Medically reviewed in July 2021

Didn’t think stress itself could lead to an ER visit? You’d be surprised. As an ER doctor, I frequently see patients with medical problems triggered by constant, high levels of stress

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Research has shown that chronic stress is bad for us – increased cortisol levels, weight gain and high blood pressure can all cause health consequences over time. But did you know that your stress could cause a medical emergency right now? Here are five common ways you could end up calling 911:

1. Broken teeth
Sure, a bad fall that breaks your teeth would merit a trip to the ER. But I’ve had patients who grind their teeth (also known as bruxism) to the point of causing fractures. Over time, the pressure of teeth grinding not only wears down the surfaces, it can cause cracks that could eventually lead to fractures.

2. Shingles
Typically patients I see with shingles are older, with weakened immune systems. But every so often I’ll see an otherwise normal and healthy thirtysomething with a bout of shingles. The trigger? Chronic stress. The same stress that can weaken your immune system and cause a cold can manifest itself in an outbreak of the varicella-zoster virus, which can result in a painful case of shingles.

3. Heart attack
Stressed at work? More bad news: A 2012 study of 200,000 Europeans found that those who had stressful jobs and less decision-making roles had a 23% higher risk of having a heart attack than those with less job-related stress. 

4. Car Accidents
Emotional stress can take a major toll on your ability to cope -- even to the point of raising your risk of having a serious car accident. In one study of nearly 14,000 men and women, marital separation or divorce was associated with three times increased risk of a car accident, while a partner’s hospitalization increased the risk by 40%.

5. Stomach ulcers (peptic ulcer disease)
Stress affects your stomach and intestines, too. Studies have shown that during times of natural disaster or other catastrophe, there are higher rates of peptic ulcers. Even absent a widespread calamity, research has demonstrated that those who have poorly controlled stress levels have a higher rate of developing ulcers, which can lead to intestinal bleeding and perforation.

Stress Overload Danger Signs
How do you know if your stress is getting out of control? Pay attention to your body’s signals:

  • Is your jaw clenched?
  • Are your shoulders contracted and raised?
  • Do you feel your heart racing?
  • Do you have a pounding headache?
  • Are you having trouble concentrating or remembering things?

If you can answer yes to any of those signs (and you may likely have more than one), a quick intervention will help: Relax your jaw (move it back and forth) and shoulders (roll them back and forward). Take a moment to calm down using your breath: Slowly inhale and exhale three times. While these little steps won’t eliminate the source of your stress (if only!), they can lower your body’s stress response, helping you to keep your cool -- and stay out of the ER. 

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