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Can Stress Cause Back Pain?

You may not realize it, but stress can impact your health in many ways. It can cause a number of health issues including back pain.

Stress-related back pain is, basically, the result of emotional and psychological factors that impact your physical well-being. Although it can cause a variety of physical symptoms, the good news is that it can be addressed. There are a number of mental and physical techniques and activities that can help reduce it.

Before we get into the details of what the symptoms of stress-related back pain are and how to treat it, let’s take a quick look at some of the scientific studies that show the reality of this phenomenon.

What Does Stress-Related Back Pain Feel Like?

Stress-related back pain is often the result of psychological and/or emotional factors impacting your physical being in some way. Basically, psychological stress can lead to a physical reaction of some sort that evolves into back pain.

The particular symptoms of back pain, including its severity, often vary from person to person. This is no surprise as every individual is different and most react differently to stress. Also, the source of stress will vary from case to case and the corresponding physical reactions in each patient will often vary. The nature of the back pain may entail basically anything from a dull, bothersome ache to a sharp, shooting pain across the back, 

There are a certain number of symptoms that are more commonly associated with back pain than others. These include:

  • A general sensation of pain throughout the back. This can manifest as tension, stiffness, or simply soreness
  • Your movement is impacted by your back pain to the extent that you begin curtailing activities you once enjoyed.
  • You occasionally suffer a sharp, sudden pain in your back, seemingly without cause.
  • Your back pain begins to impact your sleeping behavior keeping you from getting a decent night’s sleep
  • Certain movements like pivoting, bending, or turning become uncomfortable and painful
  • It becomes uncomfortable to rest because of pain and/or tightness that develops between your shoulders..

This is not necessarily an exhaustive list, but it does serve to give you a potential avenue to explore if you recognize any of those symptoms in yourself.

One of the trickier aspects of stress-related back pain is the cycle of pain that develops in a kind of feedback loop. Once the pain starts, its very existence causes the patient to change their behavior by becoming overly careful and timid. Often, certain normal activities are unnecessarily curtailed out of fear of causing additional pain. The more the patient “takes it easy,” reducing their activities, the more their muscles and general physique weaken. This, in turn, leads to increased back pain.

How Long Does Stress-Related Back Pain Last?

Generally speaking, most medical conditions will last as long as the underlying cause remains untreated. In this case, if you are dealing with stress-related back pain, there’s a good chance that the pain will remain for as long as the stress remains. If you deal with the stress – with some exceptions – you will likely alleviate the back pain.

Typical back pain is usually classified as either acute or chronic. Acute back pain usually goes away after a few days or possibly a few weeks. In most instances, you can handle the treatment of the condition yourself. And once the pain resolves, you can return to your normal activities.

Chronic back pain is a little more stubborn. Chronic back pain lasts for 12 weeks or longer. And to make things worse, some of the symptoms of chronic back pain might remain even after treatment is completed.

What Stress-Related Back Pain Treatments Are Available?

If you suffer from stress-related back pain, don’t despair. There are a large number of conservative therapies that have been shown to be effective. Some of these have been used for centuries in the East and are really just beginning to become popular here in the West. Let’s take a look and briefly discuss each technique 

Mental Stress Relief

  • Meditation: Meditation has its roots in Eastern martial arts and yoga. It helps you control and relax your mind and even alter your consciousness. Experienced practitioners of meditation can reduce their pain levels by as much as 90%. It is also great for relaxing, which can combat high-stress levels quite effectively.
  • Breath Control: Many people incorporate controlled breathing into their meditation. Taking controlled deep breaths, for example, can help you and your body relax, thereby alleviating a great deal of stress.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of directing your consciousness so as to observe yourself and your surroundings as much as possible. Basically, you want to be “fully present.” Such techniques help reduce stress.

Physical Stress Relief

    • Chiropractic Care: Chiropractic care is a great physical way to deal with stress. A spinal adjustment, for example, can help realign elements of your skeletal structure. That, alone, should help reduce stress and help keep it from coming back or growing more aggravated by poor posture or similar issues. Plus, chiropractors, in general, are experts in musculoskeletal structure and are a great source to get back pain relief tips.
  • Massage: In general, massage is a great way to reduce stress. Beyond that, there are a number of medically directed massage techniques, such as chiropractic massage, that are designed to treat particular medical conditions. Chiropractic massage, for example, is a great one for treating back pain. You can learn more about chiropractic care and the options it provides at Better Health Alaska
  • Exercise: Exercise is a great way to “work off” stress from the body. Even if it is as simple as just taking a quick walk, it can do wonders for your stress levels. Other options include stretching, like that done in yoga, 

Miscellaneous Techniques

  • Listen to Music: Listening to music is a great way to relax and pass some time. It also helps reduce stress levels and just make you feel good.
  • Spend time with Your Pets: Spending time with your dog, cat, or other animals, is another great way to relax and reduce stress.

The Science of Stress-related Back Pain

Let’s quickly look at three studies.

First, a study published on June 17, 2019 on SpringerLink found that “unhealthy psychological conditions, which may be attributed to unsatisfying school lives, excessive learning pressure, and uncomfortable interpersonal relationships, represent a risk factor for CLBP (chronic low back pain) in college students.” (1)

Another study on April 12, 2005, on SpringerLink found that “To reduce the negative impact of back pain the most promising behavioral and conditional prevention measures in the workplace would be to reduce carrying stress and to vary working posture.” (2)

Finally, an older study from December 2001 in the Wiley Online Library found “that an association exists between work stress, manual lifting and LBP (lower back pain) prevalence.” (3)

The point under consideration in all three of these studies is the connection between mind and body. Basically, they demonstrate that psychological events and conditions (specifically stress) can significantly impact the body.


Stress-related back pain can be a very aggravating problem that feeds on itself and just becomes worse over time. Still, don’t fret. It can be dealt with. Here at the American Institute of Stress we offer a wealth of information on the topic of stress to help you cope with it and keep it from developing into a problem.


Photo by Stephanie Allen

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

By Dr. Brent Wells, D.C.

Better Health Alaska