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Is Some Back Pain Really Caused by Stress?

Back pain is often confounded by underlying emotional and psychological stressors


It’s common that everyone will experience some form of back pain in their life. As we grow older, that risk increases simply from the wear and tear we put on our muscles and tendons.

However, not all back pain is created equal. One common misconception is that a majority of back issues require surgery. Actually, back pain is not a surgical disease. Most patients need medical management of their pain and a correction of the underlying issues. To pinpoint the best treatment, it is important to first identify the root cause of that pain.

In some cases, the cause of your back pain is easy to find. If you pull a muscle, suffer from chronic arthritis, or tweak your back lifting something heavy, we are likely to know where the pain is coming from and can determine a treatment plan. But in many patients, back pain is derived from a complex set of issues that cannot be easily defined. These patients can have a range of symptoms from being inconvenienced to completely debilitated.

I’ve treated many patients who didn’t realize the pain they were experiencing in their back was confounded by their own underlying emotional and psychological stressors. Individuals who suffer from depression, anxiety and increased stress are more likely to have exhausted their coping mechanisms to deal with their underlying back and spine pain. Emotional stressors are part of the initial conversation with any patient who presents themselves with pain. It is a way to help patients become aware of the control they have in dealing with their symptoms.

They may have pain but the amount of suffering that they endure is not an objective issue. Suffering is our emotional response to pain and, therefore, it can be altered by our emotional reserve. When we are stressed, anxious, or emotionally unsettled, we tap into that reserve. It is, therefore, imperative to help patients understand this issue so they actively work on building their emotional reserve.

Psychological distress can also manifest itself as pain in the body. Being able to “feel” psychological pain is a coping mechanism. The stress we feel emotionally can lead to muscles tightening which leads to pain. The pain is real but the treatment is not straight forward. We have to be willing to look at the entirety of the patient’s life and emotional issues to begin them on the road to recovery.


To treat back pain associated with psychological factors, be sure to take care of yourself emotionally as well as physically. A few tips for managing this type of back pain are:

  • Establish mature coping mechanisms. Find healthy, accessible ways to work through life’s common stressors.
  • Maintain a strong emotional reserve. Stronger emotional maturity dictates your response to pain. The higher your emotional reserve, the less you will suffer.
  • Gravitate towards things that make you happy. Once you are able to identify what eases your stress and anxiety, it becomes easier to incorporate these things into your daily life. The first step to greater emotional hygiene is to take active steps to live a happy and fulfilled life.

The more we focus on your emotional health, the better you will react to pain. There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is what you feel and suffering is your response to that pain. By focusing on your complete health picture, we can develop your emotional reserves to cope with the negatives and ease the stress on your back and spine.

Originally published at medium.com.

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