When back pain is a symptom of anxiety

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"My back hurts" is not a complaint usually associated with stress or mental health. Back or neck pain is often associated with poor posture, a sedentary lifestyle or even incorrect weight bearing.

However, back pain is often a warning sign of a build-up of tension and stress that can lead to an anxiety disorder. Stress causes a build-up of tension in the diaphragmatic musculature, which causes us to change our posture and can lead to back pain.

Chronic stress and anticipation are characteristic of anxiety. Both circumstances affect the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, which in turn causes headaches, dizziness, vertigo, muscle fatigue, nausea and muscle tension.

Several studies have documented the relationship between chronic low back pain and anxiety disorders. Among them, a study carried out at the University of Porto (Portugal) points out that it is very common for patients with chronic low back pain to also present depressive and anxiety disorders.

Some research explains this relationship through insomnia, as chronic pain and difficulty in finding a sleeping position interfere with these people's sleep. Pain often wakes them up during the night, and this lack of rest over time is often enough to trigger anxiety and depression. It has also been documented that psychological disorders can make low back pain chronic.

Why do muscle pains occur due to anxiety?

When a person experiences chronic stress or anxiety their body continuously produces cytokines, the molecules that mediate and regulate immunity and inflammation. Cytokines affect the growth of all blood cells involved in the body's immune and inflammatory response. It is precisely an excess of cytokines that causes muscle stiffness leading to severe pain. The other compound involved in anxiety-related muscle pain is adrenaline, a substance released by the brain in excessive amounts in stressful situations. Exaggerated adrenaline release damages blood vessels, increases blood pressure and body weight, causes headaches, insomnia, and increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and autoimmune diseases.

Anxiety itself can cause pain because stressful situations transfer a lot of tension and stiffness to the shoulders. Anxious people often tense their muscles without realising it, which puts extra strain on the osteoarticular system and muscles.

People with anxiety are always tense because the body prepares itself to react to the impending 'danger' with a flight or fight response. In fact, people suffering from anxiety-related muscle tension often end up experiencing frequent back and neck pain, and may even experience this pain throughout the body on a chronic basis.

Back pain and muscle stiffness in the neck are very common in people suffering from anxiety, and can occur intermittently or over a long period of time. Their intensity may vary from person to person.

What to do about back pain that is suspected to be of anxious origin?

To alleviate these pains it is important to seek professional help to find a comprehensive and long-term solution. Painkillers will only eliminate the symptom, but not the source of the pain. Psychotherapy, especially behavioural-behavioural techniques, have proven to be effective for chronic pain caused by anxiety. Some relaxation techniques also help to ease tension and muscle stiffness caused by anxiety.

Alternative treatments, oriental medicine and the practice of yoga are powerful tools for these conditions because they impact on the root of the problem.

In addition to seeking psychological help, some lifestyle changes can ease the aching muscles of an anxious person. For example, regular physical exercise strengthens muscles and prevents muscle stiffness, as well as improving mood, self-esteem and self-perception. Getting enough sleep and having a good sleep routine improves the symptoms associated with anxiety, and a balanced and healthy diet will keep mental health stable.

Source: SHA Wellness Clinic