Can stress cause back pain?
How stress affects back pain and solutions to combating this commonly overlooked cause.
Djoanna Del Rosario, the senior lead physiotherapist at MedRehab Group Physiotherapy, the clinic has multiple locations in Toronto and southern Ontario, says that stress-related back pain is triggered by the release of hormones.
“When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones to cope – part of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response,” says Del Rosario. “This can cause the muscles around your spine to tense and spasm. This is a good response for protecting the back when it’s injured, as it limits your movement. But it’s not helpful when stress is the cause.”
A key issue is that the back pain itself can further increase stress. And that can worsen stress reactions, from poor sleep, to bad eating to poor decision-making. It becomes a vicious circle.
And even as life and career stress subsides, sometimes your back is still spasming after the stress has passed. That’s because your brain has memorized this path and won’t let it go.
Tips to prevent stress-related back pain
Del Rosario says that for those who’ve already had stress trigger back pain previously, take some prevention steps.
“If you feel stress building, take a step back from the situation,” say Del Rosario. “You want to keep your stress level in check before it increases. Start by doing some slow deep breathing – it’s one of the best ways to relax the body. And if you’re at your desk, get up and take a brisk walk, away from the phone or computer. Physical movement of any kind can reduce stress.”
Del Rosario also says that some simple back exercises can help neutralize your body position and avoid muscle spasm. While there are many good exercises to try, she gave two examples:
• For the upper back. Try backward shoulder rolls. Slowly roll your shoulders backward several times to increase mobility.
• For the lower back. Try lower back extensions. Place your hands on your waist or the small of your back while standing. With legs straight, lean back until you feel the stretch in your lower back, moving your pelvis forward. Hold for a few seconds, then bring your pelvic back and return to an upright position.
Reducing stress-related back pain through mindfulness.
Del Rosario says that if stress-related back pain occurs, mindfulness exercises can be effective in reducing it.
“Mindfulness is a type of mediation that connects the mind and the body,” say Del Rosario. “Since your mind has created the back pain as a reaction to stress, mediation seeks to reverse the process.”
Del Rosario suggests the following as a start to mindfulness:
• Find a comfortable position, in a place without distractions
• Lie or sit, with eyes open or closed — whatever is most comfortable for you
• Do some slow deep breathing to relax the body
• Progressively activate and then release different muscles in your body, from head to toe.
You can do the progressive muscle tensing internally, where your body position doesn’t move. Or through active movements. Either way, you want to focus on whether your body is hurting and how each part of it feels.
“For active movements, start by lying on your back,” say Del Rosario. “Lift one leg up as far as you can, keeping your knee straight. Once you start to feel the stretch or mild pain, hold it for 10 seconds. Then slowly bring your leg back down and repeat with the other leg.”
Del Rosario says yoga also incorporates many elements of mindfulness. So, it’s another way to break that mental pathway and reduce stress-related back pain. She says it’s best to consult with your health-care provider before starting yoga to make sure it’s right for you.