“When you are investigating the various possible reasons for your back pain, remember that all pain has physical and emotional components. If you ignore either physical or emotional influences, you are less likely to find a remedy.” – Dr. Michael S. Sinel, Back Pain Remedies for Dummies.
The back is made up of 33 bones in the spinal column, 24 ribs, plus bones that are located in the shoulders and hips. There major and minor muscle groups (superficial, intermediate and deep) that support the spinal column, allow for movement of our neck, limbs, and trunk of our body as well as others that support posture. Ligaments in the back serve to hold things in place where as tendons connect muscle to bones and allow for movement. Not to mention that the back has its own unique “joints” separated by discs and the sacroiliac joints. Add all of this together with the nerves that sense pain, and it becomes very complex.
Many of us have experienced back pain and we can’t figure out what we did to make it hurt. This unexplained phenomenon could be related to nothing other than stress. Too many times, medical practitioners want to find a physical cause for aches and pains, without looking deeper. Physical pain can be caused by psychological or emotional factors, like stress and anxiety which alters our physiology. Therefore, stress can affect many parts of our body, including: digestion, blood pressure, energy, sexual function, concentration, mood, headaches, sleep, etc.
There are two types of stress that your body can experience, short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress causes the muscles in the body to tighten up, but as soon as that stressor has passed, those muscles may relax again. This can be limited to one part of your body (neck spasm) or your entire body (fear). However, the mechanism in our body that is triggered by fear, is the same one that is triggered with anxiety and stress. Cortisol is a hormone often released during these events. It also normally increases when we wake up in the morning, with exercise, after eating, during pregnancy and possibly with sexual stimulation. When we feel stressed or anxious, our body releases cortisol. What happens though, if we have constantly (chronic) high levels of cortisol circulating in our body?
Stress and anxiety have been proven to increase circulating cortisol and when we are under constant stress, these cortisol levels remain high. Over time, this can cause fatigue, weight gain, high blood pressure, and pain. Continuously high levels of cortisol can cause physical changes to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and joints in our body too. As a result of these changes, we experience weakening and decreased function. Weakening of any of the components that make up our back, can lead to pain and/or injuries.
What can you do to reduce your risk of back pain associated with stress?
Find an Activity
Get up and move around or do something fun. These types of activities can help reduce stress and make you feel better overall. By exercising or even laughing, your body responds by releasing endorphins. Endorphins signal parts of your brain to make you feel happy and also reduces your perception of pain. So, these activities are not only good for the body, they are good for the soul.
Continued, regular exercise can reduce the levels of cortisol caused by stress and help strengthen the muscles that support your back. Another benefit is that exercise helps with sleep too! This exercise does not need to be anything strenuous either. Look to alternative forms of exercise to help reduce stress, like Dancing, Tai Chi, Yoga or Pilates.
Distractions- Everyone has that one “go to” thing that helps them relax and reduce stress. The question is…Are you using it often enough and is it healthy? Some suggestions might include, listening to music, reading a book, watching a fun movie, meditating, taking a relaxing bath, nature watching, painting or drawing, writing, watching your children or grandchildren play and even sex.
Get to the root of what is causing your pain. If you do not identify this and take measures to reduce the stress or anxiety that it causes, this will continue to be a viscous cycle. Sometimes it is beyond what you can do yourself. You may need to take time to talk to a relative or friend. You may even need to seek profession counseling and/or support.
The bottom line is that stress can cause many health problems including back pain. Now that you are equipped with this information and some suggestions on how to alleviate it, it is up to you to make that choice. If you do some or all of these things and the back pain continues or gets worse, you should seek medical help.
If you have chronic neck or back pain and want to consider stress as a possible cause you may want to read “Healing Back Pain” by John Sarno, M.D or you can contact Michael Sinel, M.D. directly at michaelsinel.net.
Michael Sinel, M.D.
Board Certified Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician
Assistant Clinical Professor, UCLA Department of Medicine
Dr. Sinel is an expert in stress-related back pain and mind/body medicine. He also has obtained certifications as a yoga therapist and mindfulness-based stress reduction instructor. Dr. Sinel is a proponent of using alternative methods to help patients overcome the pain and loss of mobility from spinal disorders and chronic pain syndromes.
Dr. Sinel has authored two widely read books: “Back Pain Remedies for Dummies” and “Win the Battle Against Back Pain.”