Stress and Back Pain


Having back pain can cause a great deal of stress for the sufferer, but what about the other way around? Could stress be a primary cause of back pain? Dr John Sarno, Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine, New York University School of Medicine believes the answer is yes. He has coined the phrase Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) to describe stress-related back pain.

The pain is not imaginary, rather the result of very real physical problems which are being impacted upon by emotional factors.

How does stress cause back pain?

Dr. Sarno’s theory is that patients who do not deal with their stress and anxiety, unconsciously push them out of their awareness and into their unconscious. This unconscious tension starts a cascade of changes in the body including:

  • Constriction of blood vessels throughout the body;
  • Reduction of blood flow to the muscles and other tissues of the body;
  • Decrease in oxygen in the muscles and tissues of the body;
  • Buildup of biochemical waste in the muscles.

This cascade of events then causes:

  • Muscle tension
  • Muscle spasms
  • Back pain

Back and neck pain

Diagnosing stress-related back pain

A thorough physical examination will rule out any serious spinal disorders or structural causes of pain such as a degenerative disc.

The symptoms of stress-related back pain are similar to fibromyalgia and include:

  • Back pain and/or neck pain
  • Diffuse muscle aches
  • Muscle tender points
  • Sleep disturbance and fatigue

In many stress-related back pain cases, patients complain of experiencing the pain from just “moving around”.

Stress ball

Treatments for stress-related back pain

The two most common ways to treat back pain caused by stress are the psychotherapeutic approach and the multi-disciplinary approach.

Through psychotherapy, the patient is encouraged to process the unconscious negative emotions, e.g. anger, fear etc, and acknowledge to themselves that the back pain is a result of unconscious issues.

Most doctors use the multi-disciplinary approach, which combines therapies and exercise disciplines like Pilates to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and environmental issues the patient is dealing with.

Sand passing through a hand

Information source for this news item: Spine Health

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