Can Stress Cause Back Pain?

Man with Back Pain

Back pain can be acute or chronic – depending on how long it lasts. The pain may be a burning sensation, a dull ache, or a sudden piercing pain. And it can be simply annoying or excruciating.

The pain can be caused by vertebral disc degeneration, muscle strain, or injury to the ligaments and discs that support your spine. Poor posture can also be a culprit, as can heavy lifting, and a night of disturbed sleep.

However, research has shown a link between mental and physical health where back pain is a factor. Can stress cause back pain? Read on…

Frequently Asked Questions

Can stress cause physical pain?

Yes – stress can manifest physically causing muscles to tighten. This physical reaction may be initially unnoticeable, but is substantial enough to lead to pain. The tension causes muscles to tighten – particularly around the shoulders and down the spine.

Unconscious tension constricts blood vessels, and reduces blood flow to soft tissues – including muscles, tendons, and ligaments. A decrease in oxygen and a build-up of waste products trigger muscle tension and spasms.

Personality characteristics can interact with stressful life situations and cause back pain – and this is particularly noticeable in people who are compulsive and perfectionist, and have a great sense of responsibility.

Can stress cause lower back pain?

You may actually carry the stress in your lower back, and the muscles will tighten – this tension causes pain to be experienced. Both psychological and emotional factors are the prime influence and can be the cause of continuing pain.

Can stress cause upper back pain?

When you’re stressed a change in breathing patterns happens – and this causes strain through your shoulders and your upper back. Low but constant activity in these muscles that stretch from the base of the neck to the upper back is a positive connection between stress and back pain.

Understanding the Pain Cycle

Stress-related back pain caused by physical changes resulting in pain can lead to more emotional stress, depression, and increased anxiety. This cycle of pain then produces:

  • Limited functions in everyday life including leisure activities due to fear of further pain and injury
  • Restricted movements leading to muscle weakening resulting in more back pain
  • Over-adjustments made by those with severe back pain or hypersensitivity to the pain resulting in making the back pain worse
  • Reaction to anxiety-related back pain potentially contributing to more severe pain
Doctor examining patient with back pain

Getting a Diagnosis

A sympathetic doctor will get a detailed medical history from you and then carry out a physical examination. The onset of the pain may begin with a strain or accident which continued after the injury has healed due to the result of emotional factors.

MRI findings indicating a bulging disc or degenerative disc disease may not be clinically significant – and not be determined as the cause of pain. This will also rule out serious medical conditions such as infection or spinal tumour that may be causing the pain.

There are characteristics of stress-related back pain and the symptoms include:

  • Sleep deprivation and exhaustion
  • Muscle aches and tenderness
  • Back and neck pain
  • General pain when moving

If a diagnosis of Tension Myositis Syndrome is made – where the tension of the back muscles is causing the pain – this is a mental and physical disorder which requires a specific form of treatment. And once the connection has been made between stress and back pain, you’ll be referred to the appropriate professional to manage the relationship.


There are four factors that will be addressed when approaching the treatment. Alongside the relative contribution of the following:

  • Physical – weak and de-conditioned muscles and any nerve irritation
  • Emotional – depression and anxiety
  • Cognitive – negative thoughts of hopelessness and pessimism
  • Environmental – any financial problems or loss of job for example

A multi-disciplinary programme will then be put into place focussing on those same four factors:

  • Physical – a specialist will work with you using reactivation therapy to loosen up the affected muscles. Treatment will include a combination of stretches, other activities, and exercise routines. Pain medications may be prescribed.
  • Emotional – muscle relaxants and anti-depressants may be used alongside therapy. Muscle relaxers will reduce muscle spasms, relieve pain, and increase the mobility of the affected muscles. They have sedative properties which aid with sleep. The anti-depressants will primarily treat depression, chronic pain and sleep disorders.
  • Cognitive – treating the emotional and cognitive factors through psychological pain management techniques and biofeedback – a method where you’re connected to electrical sensors that help you relax certain muscles to reduce pain. Sensors are placed over the skeletal muscles to monitor the electrical activity that’s causing the muscle contraction.
  • Environmental – external issues that affect your life will be identified and counselling or therapy put in place to bring about a permanent change. A trained counsellor will teach you strategies to minimise and cope with the causes of your stress – advanced planning and tactics to deal with difficult people in your life.
Woman Doing Yoga

Breaking the Back-Pain Cycle

If your back pain is caused by anxiety you need to be able to battle the pain itself. This can be achieved by:

  • Staying active – walking around and doing gentle exercise without over-exerting will keep your back strong – a daily walk provides numerous benefits such as strengthening lower back muscles and encouraging the release of pain-fighting endorphins
  • Having a massage – back pain sufferers benefit from increased blood flow and circulation alongside decreased tension in the muscles – and this mood enhancer can ease depression and anxiety
  • Stretching – muscles that are stretched will avoid further pain – knee to chest stretches can help elongate the lower back – strengthening core muscles to help you heal
  • Studying your posture – pay attention to how you’re sitting – poor posture places stress on your spine which can lead to back pain
  • Taking pain killers – back pain can be relieved with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which can be purchased over the counter or in higher doses on prescription

Stress relief products include:

Sensate devices and apps to manage your stress and reduces tension on demand

Touchpoint gadgets that use gentle vibrations to relieve tightness that accompanies stress

Lynda Ishida My job is to write but my hobby is to research the latest tech innovations, especially for health & wellness.