Can Stress Cause Back Pain?  - Ivy Rehab
Back Pain & Stress

Can Stress Cause Back Pain? 

Short answer… Yes!  While there are many sources of back pain that are caused by mechanical stresses or due to imbalances in muscles or alignment, excessive force on a shock-absorbing disc, or overuse and repetitive activity, each of these painful conditions are influenced by our emotional state.

What does it mean if your back hurts out of nowhere?

How does this happen? And how can we experience different types of back pain when nothing is physically “wrong?” The answer lies in what we now know about the science of pain. Have you ever heard the expression “it’s all in your head”? Think again. All pain is REAL. The source of pain may not be something physical, like a muscle strain or a ligament sprain. How pain is felt is influenced by our past experiences, memories, and even our fears.  

What emotion causes lower back pain?

If a person is worried or anxious, hormones – chemicals that impact the function of our organs, like our kidneys and adrenal glands, growth, and our readiness for “fight or flight,” – are triggered and released. These chemicals can contribute to an elevated state of inflammation or irritation in our bodies. The nerves that carry information about sensations such as pressure, vibration, pain, heat, and cold also can become hyper-sensitive, a state that is referred to as “central sensitization.” When nerves are sensitized, a person may feel the sensation of pain when there is seemingly no physical source or reason.  

Pain science is incredibly complexAlong with the chemical irritation to nerve endings, pain often leads to a change in how much and the manner in which we moveImmobility can compound the sensation of pain by limiting normal circulation, joint and tissue nutrition that happens as we move. So that leads us to the question, can stress cause back pain? Stress is a normal part of everyday life. When our nervous system is in a heightened state of “central sensitization,” emotional stress can cause an abrupt onset of low back or neck pain. Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to signals to tense muscles causing spasms, and the resulting pain can shift and move to different areas – sharp pain, deep aches, or pain with certain movements. 

How do you relieve back pain from stress?

The obvious answer is to reduce stress, but sometimes that is easier said than done. Using key strategies to reduce unexplained back pain can prevent lingering and chronic issues.   

  • Keep moving. Circulation brings oxygen and nutrition to all of our tissues. Movement also keeps tissues flexible and strong. Walking is rhythmic, gentle, and prevents the deleterious effects of immobility. 
  • Address the stress. Don’t avoid it, face it head-on. Take time to think about what is causing your worries or anxiety. Home, work, family, and financial issues can feel overwhelming and fill your emotional “bucket” to the point of overflowing. Writing down worries and problem-solving steps to address each issue is a proven strategy to address anxiety. 
  • Try meditation and deep breathing. Even 5 minutes of deep breathing, exhaling for twice the time of inhaling, can reduce blood pressure and the release of “stress” hormones, namely cortisol and adrenalin. Combining breathing with gentle stretching is also effective.  
  • Visualize yourself moving and doing everything you like to do, without pain. It is important to avoid being fearful of moving normally.   
  • Touching areas that hurt can de-sensitize the area from the sensation of pain. By closing your eyes and touching the painful area as well as surrounding areas, while visualizing whether it is right or left or high or low can be helpful in localizing chronic pain sensations and lowering thresholds for pain. 
  • Don’t let your pain linger. If pain persists beyond 2-3 days, seek help from a physical therapist or your local health care provider. The earlier stress-related back pain is addressed, the more likely it can be managed in a short period of time.  
  • Sleep deeply. During periods of stress-related pain, sleep is incredibly important to recovery. Our cells repair during deep sleep. Sleep helps reset the inflammatory process which lowers daily cortisol levels and combats central sensitization. 

The mind and body work together to keep us healthy and feeling great. Oftentimes, when searching for pain relief, we need to look at psychological factors just as much as we look at physical symptoms themselves. Our emotions and mental health impact the internal chemistry just like an injury or trauma do. By recognizing how our worries, fears, and anxiety impact our physical well-being, we can prevent stress-related pain and keep living and moving at our best.  

Let us help!

If you are struggling with getting your chronic pain to cease, contact your local Ivy Rehab Physical Therapy and schedule a free screen so our experts can take a look at your physical pain and provide recommendations for treatment. Rehabilitation physical therapy provides relief to your pain and offers a solution. Screens are available in-clinic and virtually through our telehealth platform. Click here to schedule now!

*Beneficiaries of federal health care programs are not eligible to participate in free screenings.

Article by Holly Lookabaugh-Deur, PT, DSc, GCS, CEEAA

Holly Lookabaugh-Deur, PT, DSc, GCS, CEEAA is a practicing physical therapist and a partner and Director of Clinical Services at Ivy Rehab Network.  Deur is board certified as a geriatric clinical specialist and certified exercise expert for aging adults.  She is certified as an aquatic and oncology rehabilitation specialist and serves as adjunct faculty at Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University.