Stress And Back Pain: What's the Connection?

March 3, 2022 • By Benjamin Wilson
The estimated reading time is 10 minutes
Back Pain

Back pain is undoubtedly one of the most unpleasant symptoms which we frequently experience. From disturbing our sleep to causing difficulty walking, back pain is certainly an irritating issue. What makes this problem even worse is the fact that most of us have trouble identifying the causes of the pain. The first thought that probably pops into your head when you’re experiencing back pain is that you strained a muscle or that you spent many hours sitting in front of your laptop and this resulted in back pain. Identifying the main cause of back pain plays a crucial role in treating it properly and effectively  

Why Am I Experiencing Back Pain?

To successfully treat back pain, you first need to identify the right cause of the pain. In what follows, we’ve presented a list of the most common problems that can lead to acute or chronic back pain. Here they are:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Injury
  • Arthritis
  • Muscle strain
  • Ligament strain
  • Herniated disc
  • Excess weight
  • Ruptured disc
  • Scoliosis
  • Ligament strain
  • Osteoporosis
  • Poor posture
  • Physical inactivity

Nevertheless, if you can’t identify any of the above-mentioned things as the cause of your back pain, believe it or not, the reason behind it may be a completely different thing. 

Emotional Or Mental Stress Can Cause Back Pain

Stress is the response of your body to a challenge, tension, or demand. It’s a feeling of either physical or emotional pressure. It can be triggered by any thought or situation which makes you feel angry, anxious, nervous, frustrated or like you have little or no control over a situation. Statistical data which were published on the website of the business data platform Statista showed that 29 percent of 711 respondents from the U.S. believed that stress was the reason behind their back pain in February 2017 (1).

There’s a positive type of stress, like, for example, in situations when it motivates you to meet a deadline, or get prepared to go on holiday, or when it helps you deal with an unexpected event or a dangerous situation. This type of stress is acute since it lasts for a short period of time. But, there are cases where stress is experienced for longer. This type of stress is called chronic stress and it can have a highly negative effect on your physical and mental health. You may experience it if you’re in a bad, failed marriage or if you have financial issues or problems at work.

Now, let’s see how your body is related to stress:

When your body responds to stress, certain physical and chemical reactions begin to occur in your body so as to protect you from dangerous or harmful situations.

Namely, your body releases hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which get your body in a flight-or-fight mode. Additionally, your blood pressure and heart rate increase, and the blood flow to your ligaments, muscles, and nerves in your back is decreased. This means that there’s less oxygen transported to these areas and an accumulation of waste products in your muscles. And what’s the result of all this? Your shoulder and neck muscles, as well as the muscles along your spine tighten involuntarily. When the tension in these body parts lasts for longer, this can result in back pain.

Now, let’s see how stress is related to upper back pain.

Stress And Upper Back Pain

Stress can often be the cause of upper back pain. Namely, when you’re experiencing stress, be it acute or chronic, you change the way you breathe, i.e. you tend to breathe in a shallow way, which causes more stress, and this causes your neck, shoulder, and chest muscles to strain and become taut. You raise your shoulders and bend forward, which causes you to feel pain in your upper and middle back.

Stress And Lower Back Pain

When there is tension in the muscles in your lower back and the tailbone, you experience back pain, and this is called Tension Myositis Syndrome. Experiencing this syndrome has a negative effect on your mood and causes you to be physically less active. It causes you to exercise less and do fewer leisure activities simply because you’re afraid of the pain or that you might injure yourself. This in turn causes your muscles to further tighten up as well as weaken, thereby increasing the intensity of your pain. Moreover, when you worry about the pain you’re experiencing, it may cause you to become stressed out even more, which in turn leads to more pain.

Symptoms Of Stress Fracture In The Back

Lower back pain is also one of the main symptoms of a stress fracture, also known as spondylolysis. It occurs through the thin, small bones of the lumbar vertebrae. This is an area that stands a good chance of being affected by chronic stress.

The back pain one experiences as a result of a stress fracture commonly gets worse with certain sports, such as football, gymnastics, tennis, basketball, and long-distance running. The stress fracture represents a tiny crack in the bone and it is most commonly caused by repetitive trauma or overuse and it’s more noticeable when a person having this condition bends backward (2, 3).

The pain can be felt only in one side of the back, but occasionally it can spread down and be felt into the buttocks. And believe it or not, it’s possible for some people to have a stress fracture in their back even when they don’t feel any discomfort or pain.

If you have a lower back stress fracture, to treat it, you need to spend more time resting. Also, stop doing activities or practicing hobbies that may be worsening your pain. And make sure you consult your doctor so that you treat the injury properly and successfully.

An untreated stress fracture can cause arthritis or it may even require a surgical procedure.

And now let’s see …

How Can You Treat Lower Back Pain?

Lower back pain has both physical and mental nature and therefore to be treated, it needs a physical, cognitive, emotional, and environmental approach. To treat it physically, you’ll need to loosen up the tight, sore muscles by doing physical exercises suggested by your doctor. A cognitive approach is related to the way you think about this condition if you’re optimistic about your situation or you’re solely focusing on the bad consequences of it. An emotional approach is related to the way you feel about your present situation if you’re anxious, sad, angry etc. And an environmental approach refers to certain external factors that influence your life, such as your work or your living situation, and you may be required to make permanent changes to them.

Sciatica And Stress

Emotional stress can lead to sciatica. This condition starts with experiencing pain in the lower back which then spreads into the buttocks and moves down the back of the legs. It is characterized by throbbing pain and tingling or numbness felt in these areas. When you’re going through a stressful situation, this can worsen symptoms of sciatica since the brain deprives your lower back nerves of oxygen, which in turn leads to tingling or weakness sensations and leg pain, which are all typical symptoms of sciatica.

Can Pain In the Joints Be Caused By Stress?

When you’re experiencing stress, your body releases chemicals that can cause inflammation, which, in turn, can cause your joints to become stiff or swollen. As a result of this, you’ll feel pain in your arms and legs as you move them.

How To Treat Joint Pain

To alleviate symptoms of joint pain caused by stress, you should make certain changes to your lifestyle:

  • Consume healthy food. You need to make sure you have a healthy diet that will help you manage your body weight. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, green vegetables, and citrus fruits all contain components that reduce inflammation.
  • Cut down on caffeine and alcohol as these can increase joint pain.
  • Doing physical exercises and walking can greatly benefit your physical health. But, depending on the type of joint pain you’re experiencing, know that there are exercises you should avoid doing. So, prior to choosing what physical exercises you’ll do, consult your doctor to ensure they’re right for your body.
  • Ask for help. If none of the above-mentioned things helps you ease symptoms of joint pain caused by stress, consult your doctor so that you can determine what the best remedy is for your condition.

How To Treat Back Pain Caused By Stress

1. Consume healthy foods and drinks.

Having a healthy diet helps you manage your body weight which in turn betters your posture and takes away pressure from your spine.

2. Stay physically active.

When you are physically active, hormones, such as endorphin and serotonin, are released, which are known to help lower stress. So, whether you’ll choose to visit the gym or do physical exercises at home regularly, or just walk to work, it doesn’t matter, - just make sure you’re always physically active.

3. Relax.

No matter how busy life you’re living, always squeeze some time into your hectic schedule for relaxing activities. Practicing a hobby, doing yoga, meditating, playing some sport, walking in nature, cycling, listening to music, reading a book, spending time with your family or friends, or just staying at home and doing nothing can all help you distract from your problems, relax, and reduce your stress levels.

4. Take warm showers.

Taking warm baths or showers can be really helpful in alleviating symptoms of back pain as it can loosen your muscles and ease your pain.

5. Practice mindfulness.

Practicing mindfulness may help tame back pain and enable you to have more control over your emotions by increasing the flow of blood to the frontal lobe of the brain. When you’re practicing mindfulness, you’re actually learning to ignore the negative thoughts and worries in your head and focus on your breathing. You can practice mindfulness  5-15 minutes every day.

Side Effects Of Untreated Back Pain

  • It can affect the quality of your life. Untreated back pain can cause you to have difficulty concentrating, performing everyday activities, or being productive at work.
  • It can lead to spinal injury. Prolonged back pain can result in strong nerve pain, spinal stenosis, and nerve damage.
  • It can affect the quality of your sleep. Untreated back pain can disturb your sleep by keeping you from lying in your bed comfortably and feeling supported, and as a result, this can prevent you from getting a nice rest.
  • It can affect your emotional health. Untreated back pain can lead to anxiety and depression since struggling with pain for longer makes you feel hopeless, unworthy, and helpless. And these two conditions can cause you to feel more pain in your back.
  • It may lead to muscle fatigue. If your backbones and muscles don’t work properly as they should, with time, the rest of your muscles and bones will get fatigued more quickly as a result of prolonged back pain.


  • Emotional and mental stress can lead to upper and lower back pain.
  • Stress can worse symptoms of sciatica.
  • Stress can lead to joint pain.
  • There is relief from stress-related back pain. You can ease it by eating healthy foods, exercising, staying physically active, doing relaxing activities, taking warm showers, and practicing mindfulness.
  • Untreated back pain can lead to other mental and physical conditions.

Benjamin Wilson

He is a fitness trainer and part-time blogger interested in nutrition and in leading a healthy lifestyle. He writes smart and inspirational articles on nutrition supported by scientific research and his own personal experience in the healthcare industry.
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