Can Stress Cause Back Pain?

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.

What’s the relationship between stress and back pain?

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

According to a 2021 study Trusted Source, 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 by Trusted Source 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
  • Trusted Source
  •  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 Trusted Source 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. In another study, Trusted Source 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.

What does back pain from stress feel like?

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.

stress causes back pain

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.

How long does stress-related back pain last?

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 Trusted Source 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:

  • tendency to worry
  • social isolation
  • social conflicts
  • perceived long-term stress

How do you relieve back pain from stress?

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.

Tips for stress relief

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 at 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.

Bottom line

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.

Therapies That Work for Stress

Stress is a normal part of life — good stress and bad stress. With bad stress, you have both physical and emotional reactions to certain triggers that can cause you to worry and feel on edge. Stress can fluctuate at work or at home, while challenging situations and other changes in your life can trigger it, too. If you’re curious about how you can manage stress through therapy, read on to learn more about what types of therapy and therapists can help.

What therapies work for stress?

While stress itself is a normal part of life, recurring stress that interferes with your daily activities and overall well-being is not. Stress can manifest itself in different ways, including excessive worrying, inability to sleep at night, and body aches. Stress can take its toll, but therapy can help you manage it better. Some types of therapy may even equip you with strategies to cope with future stress. Below are the most commonly used therapies for stress and related mental health conditions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for short-term help

CBT is perhaps one of the most common types of therapy available, as it addresses your thought patterns and behaviors. Your therapist will help you identify your stressors, and help you come up with healthier responses to reduce the impact of your triggers.

CBT may be used on either a short-term or long-term basis. This can make it suitable for helping to treat chronic mental health conditions, as well as helping you get through traumatic events and other causes of acute stress.

You may benefit from CBT if you’re concerned about:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • sleep disorders, such as insomnia
  • phobias
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Psychodynamic therapy

Like CBT, psychodynamic therapy aims to help you identify thought patterns that may dictate behavioral responses. Psychodynamic therapy, however, is used on a more long-term basis. It may be best suited for stress caused by long-standing issues that you have been dealing with, which are intertwined with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

Behavioral therapy

Behavioral therapy is similar to CBT with its focus on changes in behavior. But unlike CBT, behavioral therapy is more focused on your actions, rather than your thoughts. According to this type of therapy, your actions are dictated by previous behaviors. By changing your behavioral responses to stress now, you can create new patterns and possibly avoid further stress.

Behavioral therapy tends to work best for long-term triggers of stress, including traumatic events, as well as conditions such as anxiety, phobias, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a technique traditionally used to treat phobias, PTSD, and anxiety disorders. You might benefit from this type of therapy if you have a mental health condition that causes you to avoid certain situations, objects, people, and places.

exposure therapy to reduce back pain

This type of therapy may also help address chronic stress if you practice avoidance in an effort to avoid more stress. Unfortunately, such avoidance can make stress and anxiety-related disorders worse by making you feel even more uneasy.

Group therapy

In some cases, group therapy may be an option if you’re dealing with an extremely stressful event. Examples include natural disasters, child loss, divorce, and more. A trained therapist leads sessions, and you may find the group setting allows you to feel empowered and less alone.

What kind of therapist is best for stress?

Trained psychologists or psychotherapists are generally the best types of mental health professionals for stress-related therapies. Their mission is to help you identify triggers of stress while collaboratively developing a plan with you to manage them. Psychotherapists are also referred to as “talk therapists.”

When looking for a therapist, you can ask a prospective professional what modalities they specialize in. For example, many talk therapists use CBT, while others might specialize in psychodynamic therapy. Also, some psychotherapists specialize in stress and related mental health conditions such as anxiety.

While psychologists and psychotherapists tend to be the most helpful in assisting their clients with behavioral changes in response to stress, some situations may warrant other types of mental health professionals who also use talk therapy techniques. These include:

  • Psychiatrists, who can also administer mental health medications and have medical training
  • Group counselor, who specializes in working with a small group of people with similar struggles
  • Play therapists for younger children
  • School counselors, who may address stress in school-aged children, as well as college students

No matter which professional you seek stress therapies from, be sure that they are licensed in your state and have the relevant education and experience to help you.

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How to get help

If you feel that stress is starting to interfere with your daily activities, it’s time to reach out for help. The American Psychological Association is a good place to start your online search. Check out their free psychologist locator to find therapists in your state. You can also ask your family doctor for recommendations.

While many insurance companies cover mental health services, it’s important to check with your provider regarding in-network therapists. You’ll also want to check out information regarding co-payments and other fees. There are affordable therapy options no matter your insurance coverage and budget.

Some therapists don’t take medical insurance due to privacy concerns. You may check to see if they offer sliding scale fees to help offset your costs. Local clinics, blogs, therapy apps, and virtual sessions may also be less expensive. It’s important to schedule an initial consultation to gauge your comfort level with your therapist. You may find that it takes a few different therapists until you’ve found the right fit.

What else helps with stress?

Aside from therapy, there are other steps you can take to reduce stress in your everyday life right now. You can start with the following:

  • Exercise regularly. Research
  • Trusted Source
  •  shows that even walking for 30 minutes each day can decrease stress and boost your overall mood.
  • Schedule regular relaxation intervals. Do something that relaxes you for at least several minutes a day. Just some ideas include taking a warm bath, gentle yoga stretches, deep breathing exercises, or reading a book.
  • Prevent social isolation. While seeing friends and family for in-person activities can help, even making phone calls or talking virtually can keep you socially connected and reduce your stress.
  • Reassess your priorities. Focus on daily tasks without worrying too much about what you can’t get done. Also, say “no” to unnecessary tasks, and delegate extra work when you start to feel overwhelmed.

The above techniques can work for both chronic and acute forms of stress, and they can complement any therapies you decide to try. If you’re struggling with ongoing stress, see a mental health professional for advice.

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The takeaway

Occasional stress isn’t necessarily a cause for concern if you are able to manage it on your own. But if stress interferes with your life on a regular basis and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to seek help. Left untreated, ongoing (chronic) stress may contribute to (or worsen) certain mental health conditions, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

Unmanaged stress can also have other consequences for your health. These may include digestive ailments, high blood pressure (hypertension), and sleep disorders. Long-term stress is also linked to metabolic disorders. Therapy can be an invaluable tool for stress, whether you’re going through an unusually tough time or if you’ve been struggling with chronic stress. It can even address stress related to mental health conditions or chronic illnesses.

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