Stress can lead to inflammation, muscle spasms, and tension in your back.

Back pain is one of the most common medical conditions, affecting millions of people around the world.

But did you know that apart from physical triggers (like pulling a muscle or slipping a disc), back pain can be caused or worsened by stress? Back pain and stress have a complex relationship that can flow both ways.

Evidence suggests that chronic stress can lead to chronic pain and vice versa. For many people, this involves back pain.

According to a 2021 study, chronic stress eventually leads to cortisol dysfunction as well as problems with the body’s inflammatory response. Cortisol and inflammation problems lead to oxidative stress, free radical damage, cellular injury or aging, and tissue degeneration, all of which can lead to chronic pain.

In addition, research has shown that stress has a direct effect on pain processing.

Overall, stress can be linked to back pain in several ways:

  • Muscle tension: Stress can cause the muscles in your back to tense up, which can lead to stiffness and pain.
  • Increased sensitivity to pain: Stress can make the body more sensitive to pain. Research shows that critical life events can trigger changes in the limbic system and related neurotransmitters, which can change pain inhibitory mechanisms.
  • Inflammation: Chronic stress can lead to inflammation throughout the body, including in the back, which can cause pain.
  • Poor posture: When you’re stressed, your breathing patterns change and your shoulders hunch up, which can lead to strain and tension in your middle and upper back.
  • Reduced blood flow: During stressful times, your blood vessels may constrict, reducing blood flow to your back muscles and causing pain.

An analysis of 8,473 people found that severe stress was linked to a 2.8-fold increased risk of chronic low back pain compared to the general population.

Another study of 77 police investigators found that stress was significantly linked to upper musculoskeletal pain. However, this particular study didn’t find a link between stress and lower back pain.

Stress-induced back pain varies from person to person and may show up differently, depending on its location.

Lower back pain is often characterized by a dull or sharp ache, stiffness, or muscle spasms, and it may also radiate to the legs or buttocks.

In contrast, upper back pain may cause a burning or stabbing sensation or a feeling of tightness or pressure between the shoulder blades. In some cases, upper back pain can also cause pain in the arms or chest.

How to tell if back pain is from stress

It can be challenging to determine whether back pain is specifically caused by stress since back pain can have many different causes. However, here are some signs that may suggest that your back pain is stress-related:

  • Physical and emotional stress: If you’ve been experiencing a lot of physical or emotional strain, such as from a demanding job or a difficult relationship, your back pain may be related to stress.
  • Gradual onset: If your back pain has developed slowly over time rather than suddenly, it could be a sign that it’s caused by stress-related tension in your muscles.
  • Lack of other symptoms: If you don’t have any other symptoms, such as numbness, tingling, or weakness, and your pain isn’t severe, it may be caused by stress.
  • Pain that comes and goes: Stress-related back pain may come and go depending on your stress levels, whereas pain caused by an injury or condition is likely to be more consistent.
  • Improvement with stress management techniques: If your pain improves with stress-reducing activities like exercise or deep breathing, it may be related to stress.

The duration of stress-related back pain may vary depending on several factors. In some cases, it can go away on its own within a few days or weeks. However, if the underlying stress is not addressed, the pain may persist or worsen over time.

Some research suggests that stress can predict the presence of back pain later on. A study of 588 people found that, within a 2-year follow-up, the following stress types were identified as risk factors for back pain intensity and disability:

There are several things you can do to reduce stress-induced back pain, including:

  • Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Heat therapy: Applying heat to the affected area can help relax the muscles and reduce pain. You can use a heating pad or hot water bottle or take a warm bath.
  • Massage: Massaging the affected area can help relieve tension and reduce pain. You can try self-massage techniques or see a professional massage therapist.
  • Stretch: Stretches that target the lower back, such as knee-to-chest stretches and cat-cow stretches, can help relieve tension in your back muscles.

Here are some tips for stress relief:

  • Exercise regularly: Exercise helps prevent the degeneration of joints and muscles and improves mental health.
  • Eat a nutritious diet: Eating a balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce inflammation and make you feel better all around.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce stress and promote relaxation.
  • Connect with others: Social support is important for stress relief. Spend time with friends and family, or join a support group.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
  • Get enough sleep: Getting enough sleep is important for reducing stress and allowing the muscles to relax.

Stress and back pain are two interconnected conditions that can significantly impact your quality of life. Regular exercise, stretching, and good posture can help alleviate back pain, while stress management techniques like meditation and deep breathing can help reduce stress levels.

If you’re living with stress-related back pain, seek the help of a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist or a counselor, who can provide valuable guidance and support in managing these issues.