Is stress hurting your back?

Back pain is a very common complaint, with an estimated one third of adults suffering from it each year in the UK.

There is no doubt that back pain is extremely frustrating.  In many cases, the inability to pinpoint a cause or relate it to a specific event can be the most irritating thing about it, second only to the discomfort that interferes with your daily activities!

You may be surprised to find out that a large number of back pain cases are actually caused by stress and its associated behaviours!

How does stress lead to back pain?

There is a suggestion that chronic stress can lead to chronic pain and vice versa, and for many people this involves back pain.

Stress itself is the body’s reaction to certain situations or thoughts.  You may not realize it, but when you are feeling stressed or anxious, there are chemical and physical reactions taking place in your body to try and protect you from harm.

When you are feeling stressed or anxious cortisol and adrenaline are released and there is an involuntary tightening of your muscles, often occurring in the neck, shoulders and down the spine.

In addition to this, it can have a direct effect on how we process pain.  This results in the body being more sensitive to pain.

Feeling anxious or stressed can be linked to back pain in many ways:

  • Inflammation

Being stressed can lead to inflammation throughout the whole body, including the back, which can cause pain.

  • Muscle tension

When we are anxious this can cause the muscles in the back to tense up, leading to stiffness and pain.

  • Increased sensitivity to pain

It can make the body more sensitive to pain.  Research has shown that critical life events can trigger changes in the limbic system and related neurotransmitters, which can change pain inhibitory mechanisms.

  • Reduced blood flow

During stressful times, your blood vessels may constrict, reducing blood flow to your back muscles.

  • Poor posture

When you are stressed, your breathing patterns change, and you hunch up your shoulders which can lead to strain and tension in the upper back and neck.

Stress-related symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Insomnia
  • Stomach problems

All of these problems can be exacerbated by poor sleep.  Normally when we sleep our bodies go into a cycle of recovery, our muscles just let go and relax, however if you are stressed or anxious, you are missing out on that vital recovery time.

What does stress-related back pain feel like?

It can vary from person to person and may show up differently, depending on its location.

Low back pain is often characterized by a dull or sharp ache, stiffness or muscle spasms that may also travel into the legs or buttocks.

In contrast, upper back pain may cause a burning or stabbing sensation or a feeling of pressure or tightness between the shoulder blades.  You may also feel pain in the chest or arms.

How do I know if my pain is stress related?

It can be difficult to determine whether back pain is specifically caused by stress since back pain can have many different causes.

However, there are some signs that may suggest that your back pain is stress-related:

  • Gradual onset – If your back pain has developed slowly over time rather than suddenly, it could be a sign that it is caused by stress-related tension in your muscles.
  • Physical and emotional stress – If you have been experiencing a lot of physical or emotional strain, such as from a demanding job or difficult relationship, your pain may be related to stress.
  • Pain that comes and goes – Stress-related back pain may come and go depending on your stress levels, whereas pain caused by an injury or condition is likely to be more consistent.
  • Lack of other symptoms – If you don’t have any other symptoms, such as numbness, tingling or weakness and your pain isn’t severe, it may be caused by stress.
  • Improvement with stress management techniques – If your pain improves with stress-reducing activities like deep breathing or exercise, it may be related to stress.

6 tips to help relieve anxiety and stress-related pain:

  1. Practice relaxation techniques

Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and muscle relaxation can help reduce anxiety and stress-related pain.

  1. Exercise regularly

Exercise helps prevent the degeneration of muscles and joints and improves mental health.

  1. Eat a balanced diet

Eating a nutritious diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce inflammation and make you feel better all round.

  1. Connect with other people

Social support is extremely important for stress relief.  Spend time with friends and family or join a support group.

  1. Get a proper night’s sleep

Getting enough sleep is important for reducing stress and allowing the muscles to relax.

  1. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and observing your thoughts and feelings without judgement.


Back pain and stress are two interconnected conditions that can seriously affect your quality of life.

If you are living with stress-related back pain, the first step towards relief is to be examined by an experienced Chiropractor, who can help address any issues you may be having relating to your pain.

You may also wish to seek the help of a healthcare professional such as a counsellor to help deal with the anxiety and stress.

If you would like some further information or to speak to a member of our team please call us on: Hitchin 01462 420077 or Luton 01582 579687, alternatively e-mail us at: or [email address=””