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From a shorter temper, changes in mood, difficultly concentrating, headaches and even an unsettled gut; we are all well aware of and have felt the affects of stress at one time or another.  But one of the more undetected affects of stress that you may not be so aware of however, is the physical affects on your body and pain levels that may well be responsible for your ongoing back pain.

Stress can come from many different aspects of life, whether it’s stress at home or in the workplace, when a deadline is due, financial stress, or when dealing with a difficult relationship. It can even come from worries and anxieties around what is happening in the news and the uncertainty of future events. 

So what does this have to do with your back pain?

Whilst a constant or high level of pain itself can cause stress, often when we deal with people in longterm or recently increased pain (seemingly without cause) we find that it’s due to or certainly exacerbated by some sort of increased stress in that person’s life.

If you have been experiencing back pain for some time or have had previous episodes of pain or trauma to the area; no matter what the original cause of your pain, stress both physical and mental can bring about or heighten your pain – But why is this?

What causes stress to one person may be of little concern to someone else. Some people are better at handling stress than others and even the same person can experience the same stress on more than one occasion and react in a very different way each time. This is all down to our ‘fight or flight’ or stress response as it is known.

Your body’s response to stress.

When your body experiences a stressor whether that be a physical or mental stimulus, it will trigger the natural stress response; resulting in an increase in heart rate, raised blood pressure and the release of stress hormones and adrenalin. Sometimes this response can be helpful and is designed to get you out of danger. For example triggering quick reactions to perform an emergency stop. The issue arises if this stimulation of the nervous system and the stress response continues.

Stress makes us tense and nervous – literally. Being in a constant state of stress or mental arousal subsequently stimulates the nervous system and a persistently stressed or stimulated nervous system will cause your muscles to tighten and become tense. Overtime these chronically tense muscles can begin to ache and spasm and become more painful; often manifesting in the lower back, shoulders, neck, head and jaw areas – Feel familiar?

It’s not just the affect that stress has on muscle tension that can contribute to your back pain either.

Stress, particularly the persistent stress as seen in cases of longstanding back pain, can also cause changes to the nervous system itself. These changes occur both in the spinal cord and the brain, altering how you process sensory information such as pain signals that are sent from the nerves in the body, through the spinal cord to the brain. Your brain then processes this information and will trigger a conscious experience of pain – Ouch!

When exposed to persistent stress to the nervous system overtime, the brain becomes particularly sensitive to interpreting this information, lowering your pain threshold and triggering a conscious experience of pain with greater ease and less stimuli needed to make you feel pain.

So what can you do about it?

Whilst these processes occur involuntarily within the body; the first steps to controlling the pain response triggered by stress is to identify early signs and symptoms of when you might be stressed. Recognising symptoms of stress however, may be harder than you think. Most of us are so used to being stressed or in a constant sate of mental arousal that we often don’t know we are stressed until we are at much higher levels of stress and most of us wouldn’t necessarily connect our back pain to an increased level of stress.

So next time you’re experiencing an increase in back pain without cause; asking yourself if there is something causing you stress at that moment that can be addressed, may be a far more effective, safer and longterm way of dealing with your back pain than reaching for the painkillers.

If you’ve found the information in this article interesting and are wondering what else we can help you with? Then please feel free to get in touch with us here at the clinic.