Can Stress Cause Back Pain?

back pain

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Stress is how your body reacts to changes. However, when your body experiences too much stress or too often, many health issues can occur. Feeling overwhelmed, having low energy, and not getting a good night’s sleep are common effects of chronic stress.

Experiencing too much stress doesn’t just take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. Stress can also manifest in physical health issues such as back pain.

This article discusses what back pain is, its symptoms, how stress impacts the health of your back, and some tips to reduce stress-related back pain.

What Is Back Pain?

Back pain is a common medical problem. It is estimated that at least 75% of Americans will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. The intensity of back pain can vary from a dull nagging ache to a sharp shooting pain to intense spasms.

There are two types of back pain:

  1. Acute: This is back pain that resolves after a few days to a few weeks. Treatment is typically self-care, and you can return to regular activities without any symptoms.
  2. Chronic: This is back pain that occurs for more than 12 weeks. Symptoms persist even after the cause of the back pain has been treated. 

Typically, stress-related back pain refers to two locations: low-back and mid-back pain. Both types can change your posture and affect the way your body moves. Over time, back pain can affect and cause issues in the hips, neck, knee, and feet.

  1. Low-back pain: This involves the muscles between your belly button and your tailbone. Typically, when you’re stressed, you’re less likely to be physically active and more prone to sitting. Long periods of being sedentary can strain the low-back muscles and put pressure on the spine. 
  2. Mid-back pain: This involves the muscles between your shoulders and chest. Your stress levels affect how you normally breathe. The more stress you experience, the more your breathing patterns change. Your shoulders hunch over and cause strain and tension in the upper and middle back.

Symptoms of Back Pain

The severity of back pain can differ from person to person. Everyone has a different threshold, tolerance and sensitivity to pain. However, there are common symptoms of back pain. Some examples include:

  • You feel tension, pain, stiffness, pressure and/or soreness in the back area
  • The pain in your back prevents you from moving normally or doing regular activities
  • You sometimes feel a sudden, sharp pain in your back for no reason at all
  • You have trouble sleeping because your back hurts
  • You feel pain in your back when you pivot, turn or bend over at the waist
  • You feel tightness and/or pain between your shoulders when you’re resting

The Impact of Stress on Back Health

The mind and the body are closely connected. When you are stressed, your body activates the stress response. The stressor could be physical, like getting ready to jump off a diving board. Or it could be psychological, like worrying about test results. 

Flight or Fight Response

Our body interprets these stressors as a threat to our safety and well-being. This is also known as the “fight or flight” response. Your body will initiate a series of reactions to protect itself from harm.

During the stress response, hormones such as norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol are released to increase your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. Your pupils dilate and you sweat more. The short-term purpose of these functions is to fight off foreign invaders.

You’ve probably noticed that when you’re feeling stressed, your muscles tend to tighten up. They tighten up because your body senses danger and prepares to take immediate action. Then when you enter a calmer state, your muscles relax. 

However, if you are always in this “fight or flight” mode and your body never gets a chance to destress, your muscles are constantly tense, and this causes back pain and body aches. 

Frequent activation of the stress response causes repeated surges of cortisol. Your body becomes desensitized to cortisol, similar to the mechanism involved in insulin-resistant diabetes. Cortisol dysfunction leads to stress-induced inflammation. Stress-induced inflammation has increased the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic low back pain, sciatica, and chronic pelvic pain.

Stress Impacts Your Nervous System

Chronic stress can also put the nervous system into overdrive. Your nervous system consists of billions of neurons which are specific cells that send information between the brain and the rest of your body by using chemical signals and electrical signals. Neurons are responsible for controlling muscle movement.

Overstimulated neurons can cause them to fire unpredictably and cause muscle twitching, pain, prolonged muscle tension, and spasms.

Lastly, the effect of stress on the nervous system has also been shown to be associated with a decreased ability to regulate pain.

Tips to Prevent Stress-Related Back Pain

It’s important to take care of our mental and physical well-being because our minds and bodies work closely together. Although it’s not possible to avoid stress, you can take steps to improve your health and prevent stress-related back pain.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Exercise regularly: Incorporating physical activity into your daily routine can help keep your muscles healthy and strong. There are specific exercises that can help strengthen the core and lower back to prevent back pain. Be sure to consult with a physician before starting a new exercise program.
  • Take breaks during the work day: If your job requires you to be sitting for the whole day, schedule regular breaks to stretch. Go for walking meetings to relieve muscle tension in your back. Set a timer to remind you to stand up and switch positions.
  • Eat a balanced diet: Consume nutritious foods so that your body is in an optimal state to combat stress. Avoid high-fat and high-sugar foods, as these can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and make you feel even more stressed.
  • Meditate: Meditation has been shown to help reduce stress and decrease rumination. There are various methods to try. One way is to stop what you're doing and take a minute to mindfully focus on your senses, including what you’re seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.

A Word From Verywell

If you find your stress out of control, please seek counsel from a mental health professional. Stress can be managed with proper treatment. If you're experiencing physical pain, please consult a physician.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system.