Stress—what can be said about it that hasn’t been lamented over before? Everyone knows how unpleasant it is. You may have also heard about how it can cause mental health problems if left unchecked and that, in rare cases, it can lead to cardiac issues such as heart attacks and strokes. However, did you know that stress can eventually give you back pain? Though it may be difficult to believe, mental or emotional stress could be the cause of your back pain.
How does this happen, though? What is the psychology behind stress-induced back pain? Is back pain treatment needed? And more importantly, are there any other occurrences in the brain that can cause issues in the spine and vice versa?
An Introduction to Stress
Before we dive into how stress can cause physical pain, it’s best to explore the science of stress first and foremost. Stress is a natural human trait that affects everyone at some point in their lives. In truth, the human body is built to recognize and respond to stress. Your body develops physical and mental responses in response to changes or problems, commonly known as stressors. Those responses are what we call stress.
Your body’s stress responses assist it in adapting to new surroundings. Stress can be beneficial in that it keeps us attentive, focused, and prepared to avoid danger. A stress reaction, for example, may help your body work harder and stay awake longer if you have an important test coming up. However, stress becomes an issue when stressors persist without release or moments of rest. The physical symptoms of stress can include:
- Aches and pains, especially in the chest
- Increased heartbeat
- Unexplained exhaustion or trouble sleeping
- Dizziness or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Unconscious muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Digestive problems
- Low sex drive
- Weakened immune system
It should also be noted that the human stress response is in the same family tree as our fight-or-flight response that first developed in our ancient ancestors. Back when man’s biggest concerns were simpler things such as whether or not they were being stalked by a bear while foraging for nuts and berries, the stress response is what kept them on their toes and ready to react to danger at a moment’s notice. In fact, our danger response—known as the fight-or-flight response—is triggered by acute stress.
Though these parasympathetic responses still have their place when it comes to reacting to actual imminent danger, unfortunately, your brain does not know the difference between a bear in the woods and your boss threatening to fire you. It will perceive both events as wildly stressful, perhaps even life-threatening, and react the same under both circumstances. Sadly, we cannot simply sprint away from or pick a fight with our bosses every single time they stress us out, so these responses can feel uncomfortably out of place in today’s era.
Mental and Physical
The mind and body are intrinsically linked, and that connection is exemplified during the stress response. In fact, with our society being increasingly more geared towards monetization and productivity over all else, the latest generation is actually displaying cognitive deficits as a result of the constant stress. The nervous system tells our bodies to release stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol while we’re under stress. Among the numerous effects that these hormones have on our bodies are changes in the functionality of the musculoskeletal system.
The body’s natural method of protecting itself from injury and discomfort is for our muscles to stiffen up. When done only on occasion and for its intended purpose, this is excellent for survival. Repeated muscle strain, on the other hand, can produce bodily aches and pains, and tension headaches and migraines can occur when it occurs in the shoulders, neck, and head. When your muscles are constantly tensed up, it can lead to even more problems as well. Beyond back pain, having your muscles constantly in a state of tension can also completely reshape your posture, cause pain even in seemingly unrelated parts of the body such as your feet, increase your blood pressure, and even eventually lead to you developing an anxiety disorder.
Back Pain and Stress
Now, we finally get to the golden question: how can stress cause back pain? With the information we’ve learned, now the answer seems simple enough: our back is lined with powerful muscles that help keep the spine upright and in proper alignment. If those muscles are constantly tightened, then your back will eventually grow sore. Well, this is partially correct. As it happens, different types of back pain can be caused by the tension of different muscles in the body, some of which may not seem related to the back at first. For instance, muscles that are in control of and influenced by breathing, such as the chest and shoulder muscles, are included in mid-back pain. When you’re stressed, your breathing habits change, causing mid-back stiffness and tightness. The hunching of your shoulders leads to pain in the upper and middle back.
However, it’s also correct that back pain will manifest as the muscles in other areas of your back tense up and relax as well. The tailbone and the lower half of the back muscles are all affected by low-back pain. Flexibility and posture are controlled by these muscles and, as we discussed, tightness in your muscles can restrict movement and shift your posture. During times of stress, many people become more sedentary, which means they stretch and exercise very little. When you’re overloaded at work, for example, sitting at your desk for several hours a day might strain your spine and low-back muscles.
Tolerating back pain can start a slew of other pains, including chest pain. That is why it is important to address it as soon as it happens.
When it comes to finding relief from stress-related back pain, there are several options. The most obvious of these options is simply to go through a period of stress-free relaxation. You can take this a step further by mitigating any stress that may happen in the future by developing alternative, more suitable coping methods. In fact, it’s scientifically proven that mental health therapy can eliminate chronic back pain on its own. As said before, the mind and body are linked on a very deep and instinctual level. If you want to treat your body right, you must treat your mind with care as well.
There are also other methods for eliminating stress-related back pain that are commonly used. Physical activity can help relieve stress by releasing endorphins and improving overall health. Make it a point to stand up every few hours during the workday and do a few laps around the office, or try a standing desk. Make time for exercise at home. Physical therapy can also aid in the relief of back pain and the restoration of neck and back flexibility. A physical therapist can show you particular stretches to target specific areas of your neck and back that are bothering you.
Conventional medicines such as pain relievers and muscle relaxers will also do a good job when it comes to temporary relief, but it should be noted that these are temporary measures and that you will need to keep taking the medicines in order to see continued results. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications also have the side effect of eliminating stress-related muscle pains, so if you already need medication for either of these conditions, this may be an extra incentive.
Remember how we said that your stress response can impact your gut? Well, your gut and brain are just as intrinsically linked as the rest of your body, so it may also be the other way around. If you consistently eat food that is bad for you or triggers certain responses such as heartburn or your spiciness response, then your body will feel the effects of that all around, and your brain will not like the constant feeling of poor health. Almost like a rebellion, it will produce a stress response. Therefore, eating healthier may eventually lead to a reduction or elimination of lower back pain.
Back pain can also be treated in all forms by a chiropractic adjustment. In the case of stress, not only is the process of an adjustment often extremely relieving and relaxing, but the correction of subluxations in the body can open up neural pathways, allowing for clearer communication between the central nervous system and the rest of your body. Repeated, long-term visits to a chiropractor can improve your overall health as well, making you less likely to experience these types of aches and pains ever again. If you’re in need of back pain treatment of any kind, consider contacting our team of professionals at AICA Marietta.