We’re only just beginning to understand how stress affects the body. We cover some of the most frequently-asked questions when it comes to pain and stress, such as “can stress cause back pain?” and “what are the best stress management techniques?” in this post.
What is stress?
Have you ever prepared to speak to a group of people and felt that it was difficult to breathe? Maybe your stomach felt upset or your heart pounded. These are typical reactions to stress and the body’s corresponding flight-or-flight response.
When faced with a potentially dangerous situation or one that causes fear, all of the body’s defense mechanisms gear up for battle. The brain tells the adrenal glands to produce hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, that rev up the body’s systems. The lungs take in additional oxygen. That’s why your heart races—beating up to five times more quickly than normal—and breathing quickens.
An elevated heart rate results in increased blood pressure as the heart pounds more blood through the body. Stored fat releases into the bloodstream to provide additional energy.After an acute threat—the public speech, car accident, or other passing incident—your body’s response systems will subside, eventually returning to normal. Most stress is good — truly, we need it to survive!
However, long-term stress can create a host of negative health impacts, ranging from:
These health issues often lead to subsequent health problems, making unmanaged stress a top health concern for many people.
Can stress cause back pain?
It may not cause it directly, but the two are related for many. People experiencing chronic stress may actually suffer from more severe or constant headaches, stomachaches, or back pain because of it.
The same muscles that tighten during the stress response, to help the body run or jump to safety, can never relax when constantly clenched. People hold tension in different parts of the body, including the:
- Lower back
Any of those areas may become painful under chronic stress. Stress and pain have a complicated, often frustrating, relationship. Stress frequently causes pain or aggravates existing discomfort. Meanwhile, living with pain results in stress, exacerbating the cycle.
How does stress lead to more pain?
The intertwined relationship between stress and pain is a classic example of how profoundly the mind affects the body.
Mental distress leads to physical changes. People under stress tend to clench their jaws, tighten the back muscles, or hold tension in the shoulders. Over time, this unabated constriction can lead to pain. Stress may also lead to acute episodes of pain, such as headaches, that unmanaged stress could turn into routine occurrences.
Chronic stress not only causes tension, it destroys the body’s ability to regulate its inflammatory response, typically used to fight infections and viruses, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Left unchecked, runaway inflammation can result in painful disorders ranging from arthritis to fibromyalgia.
Meanwhile, physical discomfort leads to mental anguish. A previously vibrant, healthy person who develops pain experiences a significant setback in quality of life. Left unable to exercise or enjoy the present moment, pain diminishes a person’s joy. The uncontrollable situation leads to even more stress. Constant suffering stresses the body, cementing the troublesome, unhealthy relationship between stress and pain.
What other problems does stress cause?
Stress may be related directly to pain, but it can also lead to other symptoms that will also in turn, lead to more pain. The biggest ones are sleep issues, inflammation, and weight gain.
With a mind that races long into the night, many people find it difficult to sleep. Insufficient sleep not only makes people less alert, but can also lead to serious health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. It can also exacerbate pain levels the next day.
Some people cope with stress by eating more, especially foods full of fat or sugar, which leads to weight gain. Other people lose themselves in television or alcohol, reducing the time available or will to exercise, and increasing the potential for an expanded waistline. Weight gain puts direct additional pressures on joints, and can lead to increased knee and hip pain in particular.
Chronic stress leads to inflammation, and researchers are beginning to understand why.
A study from Ohio State University found that stress alters the gene activity of immune cells, making them rally to fight an infection that doesn’t exist. Healthy inflammation can help you heal from a cut, for example, so an infection doesn’t develop. However, chronic inflammation over time can lead to a host of health problems from pain to some types of cancer.
What are the best ways to manage stress?
Managing stress comes down to practicing techniques that work for you, that you’ll be willing to do long-term. Any form of exercise, from walking to running to charging hard on the elliptical for 30 minutes, helps to burn off steam and reduce stress. Journalling, watching funny movies, or taking a long hot bath are also ways to relax.
However, Eastern-inspired exercises including yoga, tai chi, and qigong that focus on linked breath and movement in addition to physical exertion are particularly powerful for reducing stress and alleviating anxiety.
Yoga’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, as the ancient Indian practice has stormed the U.S. and created devotees and casual practitioners alike. From 2008 to 2012, the number of people practicing yoga jumped 29%, according to study conducted by Yoga Journal.
Types of yoga include the gentle, restorative practice of yin yoga, where postures are held for longer periods of time, to the flowing, strength-building, sweat-inducing practices of vinyasa, hatha, and Bikram.
No matter which type you try, yoga has healing benefits that transcend physical strength and flexibility. More vigorous practices offer the opportunity to learn how to remain calm and focused on the breath during stressful circumstances.
Studies have found yoga’s method of linking breath with movement reduces stress. A review of studies published in Alternative Medicine Review found that 25 of 35 trials examined linked “significant” decreases in stress and anxiety to yoga. Another study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health, found that employees who participated in one, 60-minute yoga class a week for six weeks experienced greater feelings of self-confidence during stressful times, as well as improved mood and well-being.
Another study from York University found women with fibromyalgia who practiced hatha yoga for 75 minutes, twice a week experienced a decrease in activity of the sympathetic nervous system, in turn lowering heart rate and promoting deeper breathing. Study participants reported feeling more in control of their situations and felt reduced pain.
Similarly, a 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found mindfulness meditation helped people with disorders related to chronic inflammation, such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, find relief. Mindfulness meditation involves staying focused on the breath, mind, and sensations that arise in the body. The practice can be completed while seated, practicing yoga, or walking.
Tai chi is a martial art first developed in China about 2,000 years ago for self-defense. The practice involves flowing movements that allow practitioners to still the mind through focusing on the body.
Tai chi is subdivided into several types, including Yang, Chen, Wu, Sun, and Woo. Some of the styles focus on fitness while others highlight the martial arts component. Because of its low-impact, tai chi is an excellent option for people with limited fitness capabilities who need gentle exercise. Many people find the slow movements meditative, although tai chi also helps improve balance, flexibility, and muscle strength, in addition to reducing stress.
Similar to tai chi, qigong is an even older form of moving meditation that also originated in China. The two practices are related and offer similar health benefits.
While tai chi began as a martial art, qigong focuses on healing. Qi refers to the energy that traditional Chinese healers believe runs through the body in meridians. The practice combines movement, breathing, and mental focus in a slow and gentle way, making it accessible to most people.
Qigong is generally less precise than tai chi because it’s not a martial art, and often less rigorous. Some exercises involve only breathing. Movements involve flowing and help practitioners build balance.
How do you manage stress in order to reduce pain? And what do you think: can stress cause back pain, and have you experienced its effects in your life?
If you’re experiencing severe amounts of pain that are affecting your overall quality of life, it may be time to talk to a pain specialist. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.