Millions of Americans have experienced back pain at one point or another in their life, and it is one of the most common complaints that a doctor will hear from a patient on a visit. Understanding the source of your pain can be very overwhelming and frustrating, especially when a structural explanation cannot be provided.
Could your back pain be triggered by stress? For many individuals, stress is not the first thing that comes to mind when trying to establish the cause of their back pain. However, it is quite possible that stress is the primary cause of your back pain. Stress-related back pain is real. What is stress-related back pain? This is back pain that is initiated by the psychological or emotional factor—stress, or is maintained by it, or both. In simpler terms, when you hold stress in your bodies, it can cause a physical change that leads to back pain.
Physician and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at New York University, John Sarno, MD, who helped to popularize the notion of stress-related back pain, contends that the patient’s feelings, personality, and unconscious issues are the direct cause of stress-related back pain (1) Stressful life situations, coupled with personality characteristics, can trigger back pain.
The body’s nervous system undergoes various changes when unconscious tension takes hold. Blood flow to different soft tissues, which includes muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves, is limited as a result of constricted blood vessels, triggered by this psychological change. A decrease in oxygen in the blood, along with waste products in the muscle, amounts to muscle tension and back pain in the individual. Stress-related back pain carries symptoms such as back or neck pain, sleep disruption and fatigue, shifting muscle aches, and muscle tenderness.
If back pain is stress-related, lacking a structural explanation, a multi-disciplinary treatment option involving an assessment of the physical, cognitive, emotional, and environmental is typically employed.
Still, there are some simple tricks and tips that you can applied in the management of stress-related back pain:
Adjust your Sleep Position for a Good Night’s Rest
Sleep disruption is often associated with stress-related back pain, and getting a good night’s sleep can become a very difficult and vicious cycle. Sleep deprivation resulting from poor sleep position can exacerbate your back pain, causing you to feel even worse. Side sleep with legs together and knees aligned is arguably the best position for individuals with stress-related back pain. This position is ideal for placing very little stress on the body, while providing the quality comfort your body needs as you sleep. It is calming to the nervous system and keeps the spine in a neutral position, relieving strain on the back. Placing a pillow between the legs can further complement the side sleep position.
Use Heat to Ease Back Pain
Muscle spasm and related tightness that are associated with stress-related back pain can be relieved through heat therapeutic treatment. The application of heat on the back works to dilate the blood vessels of the muscle enveloping the lumbar spine, thereby boosting the flow of oxygen that will heal injured tissue. Heat will relieve discomfort by stimulating sensory receptors on the skin, disrupting the transmission of pain signals to the brain. Furthermore, heat will decrease stiffness by softening the soft tissues around the spine. Use a heating pack or pad three times a day, for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time on the affected area. Warm baths or showers could also help to relax your muscles. This type of treatment is non-invasive, and is often portable.
Stretch your Hamstrings for Back Pain Relief
The lumbar region is the main point where a majority of individuals experience back pain. It may not make sense that you are stretching your legs, but the hamstrings run through the back of the thighs, and gradually lengthening them can reduce the stress felt in the lower back. Standing hamstring stretch is the most common technique for a good hamstring muscle stretch. To stretch the hamstring:
- Stand with your feet together firmly planted on the ground.
- Gently reach your arms up, while keeping your back straight.
- Slowly fold your torso forward, bending from the hip, with the knees locked and back straight.
- Maintain this position for 10-15 seconds with hands at your waist or on the tops of your legs before restarting the stretch.
- Repeat the stretch 3-5 times.
Stay Active to Alleviate Back Pain
Despite the urge to crawl into bed while tackling back pain, bed rest should be limited or avoided altogether. Movement and activity, promotes healing when confronting back pain. Inactivity can have negative effects that can lead to increased muscle stiffness, loss of flexibility, and intervertebral discs can lose their lubrication. To avoid worsening back pain or complications, perform some form of exercise and keep moving. Rest should be no more than one or two days. Whether it is swimming, yoga, or walking, staying active is an effective way to relieve back pain and prevent it from exacerbating overtime.
Mind and body connection is a huge part of breathing techniques, which can be effective in relieving back pain. A combination of breathing, meditation, and movement, are key factors that can also have a positive effect on stress levels. Breathing triggers a positive reaction in the nervous system and relaxes the muscles and body. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a good option:
- Assume a comfortable position seated or lying down, and put the tip of your tongue behind your upper teeth. Exhale through your mouth.
- Close lips and inhale gently through your nostrils for a count of 4. Next, hold breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale softly through your mouth to a count of 8.
- Inhale and repeat the cycle an additional 3 times.
- Practice this technique twice a day.
Stress-related back pain is real, but you do not have to suffer in silence!