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Can Stress Cause Back Pain? The Research Explained

Can Stress Cause Back Pain? The Research Explained

Are you affected by lower back pain? Are you experiencing extreme stress and back pain between shoulder blades? Are you wondering can stress cause back pain?

There are a great many theories linking stress with body pains and back pains in particular. Most studies confirm that emotional and psychological factors play a role in the physical manifestation of pains, especially along the neck and the back. But, first, let’s look at all the probable causes for back pains.

What Causes Back Pain?

There are many possibilities, some more obvious than others. The most logical possibility is direct injury or trauma to your back, which can cause chronic pain. However, back pain can also be attributed to many other causes like muscle tears, ligament strains, ruptured disc, arthritis, muscle spasms, or hernias. Not to forget, activities that could seem harmless and repetitive. For example, lifting weights can strain your muscles and cause back pain.

The causes for back pain are also area-specific. For instance, pain in the lower right back could be caused by problems related to the kidney, such as kidney stones or even an infected or inflamed kidney, due to its proximity to the area. In the same manner, facet joint dysfunction, Spondylolisthesis, or such injuries to the spine could be what causes lower back pain.

The Psychology of Back Pain

Did you ever think back pain can have psychological roots?

Did it cross your mind that your chronic back pain may be connected to your health?

A mix of physical and emotional components that give you the fight or flight impulse in the face of danger generally triggers an immediate stress response. When triggered, cortisol and adrenaline are released, which helps prepare the body to take action. As a physical response to this, we experience high blood pressure, elevated heart rates, or heavy breathing. When this cycle repeats often, it may cause aches and irritation in the nerves.

In his book “From Paralysis to Fatigue,” Dr. Edward Shorter throws light on the history of psychosomatic illnesses. A diagnosis developed as early as the 1820s talks about "spinal irritation," and most modern-day researchers attribute this to a form of stress-related back pain.

Can Stress Cause Back Pain and Neck Pain?

Yes, stress can cause significant amounts of back and neck pain. Stress-induced back pain is not a regular medical diagnosis. However, it is the most common cause of back pain. When stress manifests itself in the form of physical pains, we tend to tighten the muscles around our shoulders and down our spine. It is this tension and stress between shoulder blades that causes us to experience back pain. This is known as Tension Myositis Syndrome or TMS.

On the other hand, stress may not always be the primary cause of neck and shoulder pain. However, it sure can worsen the smallest of existing aches. Stress causes you to clench the jaw, neck, and shoulders muscles, restricting movement in the area.

Upper back pain from stress is pretty common. This may be due to poor posture due to a sedentary lifestyle, trauma from accidents, going overboard or working your upper back more than usual, improper lifting techniques at the gym, or lifting heavy objects. All of the above could lead to an imbalance in the upper back, muscle strains, ligament tears, inflammation, spinal disc or soft tissue injuries, and inflammation in the upper back.

Can Anxiety Cause Back Pain and Shortness of Breath?

Anxiety is a body’s natural or normal response to stress. It is the brain’s way of reacting to a stressful situation or alerting you to possible danger. Physical symptoms of anxiety such as nausea, headaches, fatigue, sweating are how your body responds to stress.

For instance, when you go through an anxiety attack, you might lose sensation in some parts of your body and feel like you might pass out or might experience shortness of breath. These physical symptoms apply stress on your spine and muscles in times of panic and cause pain. As your body is not meant to be on guard 24x7, it can have serious implications on your well being.

Tensed muscles may put you in the fight-or-flight mode and help you get away from a panic situation faster. However, when these muscles are in a constant state of tension, it results in pain. If you’re constantly anxious, the continual release of adrenaline and cortisol may have long term health implications on your body.

How Can I Avoid Back Pains in the Future?

It is important to encourage healthy activities such as maintaining perfect posture, sleeping with your spine in a neutral position, eating a balanced healthy diet, stretching regularly, and most importantly, reducing stress levels.

If you believe a physical injury causes your pain, you should immediately consult a doctor.

If your aches and pains are caused due to chronic stress and anxiety, you need to realign your thoughts and focus on addressing the triggers that stress you out. Psychotherapy or talk therapy is one of the best-supported forms of addressing the link between emotional stress and back pain. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps identify negative reactions to chronic pain and conditions the body to convert them into positives. The main principle is that once one learns to alter their initial response, they can manage the pain and how it affects them.

We often hear that all of our cages are mental. Hence, it is important to sustain a healthy mind and psyche to maintain a healthy body. A Harvard medical school study suggests that chronic pain is 'all in your head'. It helps to remember that one can achieve whatever he sets his mind to! It is mind over matter, always.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3495206/

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/psychology-low-back-pain-201604259537

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/psychology-low-back-pain-201604259537

  1. https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/depression/how-does-stress-cause-back-pain

  1. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol#1

  1. https://www.spineinstitutenorthwest.com/doctor-links-pain-anxiety/

  1. https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/treatment-programs/psychosomatic-disorders/

  1. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/


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