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How Anxiety Causes Back Pain: And How to Stop It

Pain is extremely disruptive, with back pain easily one of the most common types of pains to experience. If you're prone to anxiety, then it's possible that you've been suffering with regular back pain for years as a result of your stress and anxiousness.

Back pain from anxiety is extremely common, and one of the main reasons that so many people end up getting help for their anxiety. So what causes back pain, and what can be done about it? We explore these thoughts in this article.

Are Your Back Pains From Anxiety?

Back pain is an unfortunate part of aging, and can be attributed to severe different types of physical and mental stress. When anxiety causes back pain, it can lead to a cycle of future back pain unrelated to anxiety. Learn more about your anxiety symptoms by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test.

Start the test here.

Causes of Anxiety Back Pain

It's strongly believed that the cause of back pain from anxiety is mostly secondary - meaning that anxiety isn't literally causing back pain, but anxiety is causing behaviors that lead to back pain. Find your anxiety score and see if your back pains are from anxiety with our free 7 minute anxiety test.

There are many theories that directly link anxiety to back pain. The most common is simply muscle tension. Anxiety can drastically increase muscle tension, which in turn increases pain. Since the back contains a variety of muscles that are known to tense during stress, this can lead to mild to severe back pain in both the upper and lower back.

Massage therapists will tell you that their most stressed clients often have knots in their muscles, especially in their shoulder and upper back, so anxiety-related back pain really does exist.

But anxiety may also be causing separate issues that simply lead to back pain. These include:

  • Changes in Posture Anxiety can cause people to change their behaviors and posture, including the way they sit, what they do when they sit, whether they slouch, and so on. Changes in posture - especially when combined with the muscle tension from anxiety - can cause the muscles to be in uncomfortable positions and ultimately lead to back pain.
  • Inactivity Anxiety also tends to change people's activity levels. Activity plays a direct role in back pain, and healthy physical activity tends to make the back more mobile and less receptive to general aches and pains. Sometimes the two issues develop together, however - inactivity can lead to anxiety, which may indicate that they are separate conditions with similar contributing factors.
  • Hypersensitivity Another issue related to anxiety is hypersensitivity. Those with anxiety tend to experience physical sensations more than those without anxiety. So mild back pain - the type of back pain that normally wouldn't change your activity levels - could feel more severe and be harder to ignore, which in turn would lead to adjustments that may contribute to further back pain.

It's also important to remember that there is often a back pain cycle. Those with greater perceived back pain (either because the back pain is severe or because they are hypersensitive to the pain) are more likely to over-adjust in an attempt to avoid the pain. Chiropractors see this often. A patient with mild back pain will make their back pain worse because they're constantly walking, sitting, or twisting in ways that are unnatural in an attempt to reduce that back pain.

Similarly, some people experience further anxiety as a result of their back pain, regardless of whether the initial back pain was caused by anxiety. Since anxiety can cause back pain because of muscle tension, posture changes, etc., this may also make the back pain worse. While it may not have been initially caused by anxiety, anxiety contributed to the back pain cycle.

How to Stop Anxiety From Causing Further Back Pain

Under the assumption that your back pain is caused by anxiety, treating that back pain does require a focus on the pain itself. Unfortunately, while treating anxiety can reduce your back pain in the long term (more on this later), breaking the cycle of back pain depends in large part on your ability to also fight the back pain itself. Consider the following tips:

  • Stretch Stretching is incredibly important. You need to keep the muscles stretched and nimble to prevent further pain. Make sure you're stretching regularly in order to avoid any "freezing" of the muscle that may create pain.
  • Watch Your Posture Overthinking your posture isn't always helpful, but it is important to pay attention to any obviously bad posture that you may do as a result of your anxiety and stress. If you're sitting in a clearly bad position, stop it. Sit up straight, walk looking up, etc.
  • Pain Killers Over the counter pain killers are still a useful way to combat back pain. Even though your back pain is anxiety related, drugs like Tylenol are specifically designed for pain, and this pain is no different than other types of pain. You may benefit from these treatments.
  • Exercise and Be Mobile Unless your back pain is so severe you cannot move, and if you've been advised to stay active by a doctor, try to be mobile. Walk around, exercise - do activities that keep your back strong. Don't over-exert or risk injury, but make sure you're not forgetting the value of physical fitness.
  • Massage Massage is a very useful tool for both back pain and stress. It is a great way to work out the pains in muscles, and when you're done you'll often find your back is less painful than it was previously.

These are all traditional ways to deal with back pain unrelated to anxiety, but they're still effective because once back pain starts, it needs to be stopped using traditional methods.

But of course, controlling your back pain is only step one. You will still need to learn ways to cope with anxiety so that you can stop your anxiety back pain from occurring again.

I've helped many people with back pain from anxiety, starting with my free 7 minute anxiety test. The test is a great way to stop your anxiety symptoms once and for all.

Start the test here.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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