If you have chronic back pain, think back to the first time your back hurt. It may have been an event such as an accident or a slip or fall. Or it may have been something as seemingly benign as bending over to pick up a sock.

For most people, this pain goes away after a few days regardless of what they do, but for some, it persists. One of the reasons it continues has to do with something that was present before the pain began: chronic stress.

It is important to first understand how the stress response works. When a brain perceives a stressor, it sends signals to numerous parts of the body to respond in a dramatic way. It heightens some systems (muscular, nervous, blood sugar delivery) and curtails others (e.g., digestive). The reason our bodies do this is because it is preparing to either fight or flee; in other words, to do something physical. This was a response that was very much needed by our ancestors but works against those of us in the modern day, especially those in sedentary jobs whose stressors neither require nor allow a physical response.

Studies point to two significant findings regarding stress and back pain. First, most of us with chronic back pain were under a great deal of life stress at the time of the first occurrence. And of those who do not report an increase in stress, many describe themselves as “stress junkies”, or people who thrive on having a lot of stress in their lives.

Second, of the many parts of the stress response, people with chronic back pain tend to contract their back muscles in response to stress more than others. While some people tend to tighten their jaw or have digestive responses, people with chronic back pain tend to do a lot of muscular bracing in their backs when they’re under stress. In fact, many people with chronic back pain also report other symptoms of an active, sustained stress response such as TMJ or digestive issues.

After the initial occurrence, stress continues to play a role in back pain for many people. Their life stressors continue and are compounded by the additional stress of the pain and negative thoughts, beliefs and emotions that often accompany back pain. In addition, many people stop participating in activities that had served as stress relievers in an effort to ‘protect’ their back.

Understand that if you have chronic back pain, stress is likely to be a contributing factor, and if you don’t deal with the stressors in your life as well as your body’s response to the stressors, you may continue to be in pain unnecessarily.

Many, many articles and books have been written about stress and if you experience back pain, you may want to learn more about the stress response and stress management techniques that will help you to handle the stress in your life and its physiological response.

In the meantime, here are two suggestions to get you started.

  • First, consider the stressors themselves. Ask yourself what you need and want to have on your plate and what you can set aside for another time or eliminate. The most effective stress management tool of all is to eliminate unnecessary stressors. What can you let go of?
  • Second, since we can’t and wouldn’t want to eliminate all of our stressors (some of our stress comes from the good stuff!), we need to retrain the inclination of our brains to over-fire our back muscles and bring our bodies back to baseline on a regular basis. There are two ways to do this: exercise and relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and meditation.

By understanding how stress affects back pain and learning how to minimize the effects of stress on your health, you can be on your way to relief from the pain and getting back to doing all of the things that you wish to do.