Have a think – you’re at work … it’s all turning a bit busy and chaotic … your phone is ringing … everyone wants a piece of you … you’re wondering how you’re going to manage your workload. Do you ever sit back for a moment and realise how much your back is hurting? Back pain can be attributed to things like lifting heavy weights, adopting bad posture at a desk, sitting for long periods of time. And although these factors or an injury may be the underlying cause of back pain, would you be surprised to know that anxiety and stress can also have a huge impact?
Back pain is one of the main reasons for visits to the GP surgery, days off work and disability. A study carried out in 2014 found that back pain was in fact the leading cause of disability.
A lot of back pain is classed as ‘non-specific’. This means that the medical professionals cannot link the cause to a specific condition such as a broken bone, a slipped disc or an infection. Luckily, non-specific back pain is rarely anything to worry about. But the effects of stress and anxiety on our backs should be taken seriously:
How can stress affect my back?
OK – it may sound weird and unbelievable. But let’s look at our complicated body in more detail. Anxiety and stress triggers the body’s natural, in-built stress response. Part of this response causes the body’s muscles to tighten so they are prepared to be resilient to any damage it is about to be exposed to. Makes sense right? Your body is programmed to behave like this – basically to protect you. However in cases of extreme anxiety and stress, these muscles can tighten so much that the end result is chronic pain, stiffness and lack of mobility.
What’s more, these tight muscles are then more susceptible to being strained and thus damaged further. They can then spasm and become locked, increasing pain even more.
Muscles affected in the back can be upper, mid or lower back muscles – so in summary none of your back muscles are safe or immune from the power of stress.
Doctors now recognise the strong correlation between stress and/or anxiety and back pain.
And although back pain seems to be the primary point of pain for most, discomfort can be experienced anywhere you may have a weakness so can present itself as back pain, neck pain, headaches or similar.
But what can I do about it?
Such pain can be hard to treat. Patients want to treat the immediate physical pain but also focus needs to be directed to the fundamental cause – that is, the stress/anxiety itself. Unfortunately as long as the stress and anxiety persist, so will the associated symptoms they bring. Stress and back pain can create a vicious circle. Stress and pain cause worry. Then with more pain comes more worry and the more we worry, the greater the tension in our muscles. It’s a hard cycle to escape from!
You may want to speak with your GP about some pain relief medication options however here are some ideas of things that could be beneficial to your back pain and easy to achieve and work on at home:
• Light/moderate exercise – just getting the body moving can really help to alleviate aches and pains. Yes it may be the last thing you feel like doing but it can be super beneficial. What about attending a Pilates or yoga class to work on stretching the body, improving posture and increasing core strength?
• Heat patches/hot water bottle – heat is known to release tight muscles.
• Hot bath – as well as the benefits of the heat, the relaxation of a bath can help to loosen stressed muscles.
• Massage – a massage can be really valuable (and feels lovely too) – if you can, try to pick a physiotherapist or a professional massage therapist trained to understand the effects of stress on the body.
• Get your workstation assessed for health and safety – most employers should give you the opportunity to assess your workstation – your chair, your desk and your posture whilst at your desk. There is much information you can find out from your employer around this and about how your workstation should be set up. They can provide alternative chairs, arm support, foot rests and equipment with better ergonomic designs if needed to ensure your work area is as comfortable as possible for you.
• Breathe! – if you are stressed, you will tend to take very short, shallow breaths, breathing through the chest rather than the abdomen. This can cause muscles to shorten and tighten, causing pain. Focus on your breathing (see the next point on mindfulness).
• Mindfulness – invest in some ‘you time’ to focus on inhaling and exhaling correctly, to think and to clear your mind of non-useful thoughts. Simple but effective!
• Rest and sleep – rest is so underrated! A good night’s sleep or a period of prolonged rest can make you feel like a new person!
So don’t let your back get you down … take control, seek advice, leap into action (though don’t pull your back in the process ;)) and realise the benefits!