By Kavita Trivedi, D.O.
Stress affects the body in a variety of ways, from mood swings and headaches to weight fluctuations. However, an often overlooked side effect of stress is neck and back pain. Over time, repetitive bouts of stress can cause musculoskeletal issues in these regions of the body.
When we get stressed out, the body naturally releases certain hormones. Adrenaline is associated with the ancient “fight or flight” phenomenon that heightens our blood pressure, increases our blood supply, and causes the muscles around our spine to tense and spasm in case we need to flee the source of the stress. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone; it interferes with a variety of functions. Elevations in cortisol can lead to loss of muscle mass and increases in fat accumulation.
Data published on Statista.com suggest that adults know stress affects their spines. Online survey participants ranked the No. 1 perceived cause of their neck and back pain as follows:
- Stress: 29 percent
- Not enough exercise/weak muscles: 26 percent
- Physical work: 26 percent
- Overweight: 25 percent
- Spinal disc herniation: 21 percent
- Sitting at a desk at work: 20 percent
However, a certain level of stress is ever-present for most adults. While it’s unrealistic to suggest eliminating all stress from life, we can take incremental steps to reduce stress and alleviate neck and back pain symptoms at home and at work.
Neck pain and stress
Given its proximity to the head, tension in the neck due to stress can cause muscle pain and headaches. Chronic neck pain also can cause fatigue, depression, and irritability.
Also, when your posture is poor, such as straining to look at a computer or mobile device or hunching over your desk, undue strain occurs in the neck muscles.
Back pain and stress
We typically talk about back pain as mid-back and low-back pain. Over time, both affect your posture and the way you walk, which can lead to pain in the hips, knees, and feet.
Mid-back pain includes muscles that are affected by breathing, including the chest and shoulder muscles. When you’re stressed, your breathing patterns change and cause strain and tension in the mid-back. Your shoulders hunch up and cause pain throughout the upper and middle back.
Low-back pain includes the tailbone and lower half of the back muscles. These muscles affect flexibility and posture. Many people become more sedentary during periods of stress, which means they stretch and exercise less. For example, sitting at your desk for several hours a day when you’re swamped at work can strain the spine and low-back muscles.
Along with stress, common causes of spine pain include obesity, poor workstation ergonomics, and lack of exercise. However, we believe that all aspects of a patient’s health should be considered as parts of a whole rather than individual ailments. Patients with back pain are treated at UT Southwestern’s Spine Center by a multidisciplinary team that includes a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, a pain management expert, a neurosurgeon, and an orthopedic spine surgeon. We work closely with ergonomics-certified physical therapists to help you achieve and maintain healthy posture and movement habits at work and at home.
Treatment options for stress-related back pain
The first thing we do with every patient who has back pain is determine its root cause. It’s important to understand that no adult can expect to live 100 percent pain-free or stress-free. However, we can discuss ways to minimize discomfort and help patients feel less tense.
An effective way to reduce stress and back pain is to exercise and stretch more.
Physical activity can release endorphins and improve overall health, which can help reduce stress. Make a point to get up during the work day and do a few laps around the office every few hours, or try a standing desk. At home, reserve time to exercise. Physical therapy also can help relieve spine pain and return your neck and back to optimal flexibility. A physical therapist can show you specific stretches to pinpoint trouble areas in your neck and back.
Eating a healthy diet also can help reduce stress.
When you eat well long term, your general health can improve, and you will likely feel more energetic. Healthy eating is key to weight loss –and achieving and maintaining a healthy weight offloads pressure from your spine and improves your posture.
Additionally, it’s important to make time in your schedule to relax.
Many patients with back pain are very busy with work, family, and social commitments. Carve out time to read a good book, spend time with family and friends, or practice mindfulness or meditation.
I’ll leave you with one more suggestion for managing back pain: Remember that unhealthy options that some people claim can relieve stress, such as drinking or smoking, actually can stress you out more. The long-term physical and mental consequences of these choices do not outweigh the temporary benefits of distraction from the pain. Instead, see a doctor for a healthier, longer-lasting pain relief plan.