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The stress and back pain connection

What is Stress?

Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure or when there are too many demands on you which you feel cannot be handled all at once. Unfortunately most people encounter stressful situations daily. Stress can affect how you feel, how you think, how you behave and how your body functions.

The events that provoke stress are known as stressors’, which include everything from being in physical danger, having to make a presentation at work or worrying about situations, such as test results or relationship and financial difficulties.

The human body’s natural response to stressors is known as the ‘stress response’, also referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’. The hormones released during this response speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to the large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert, ready to deal with the situation that arises. When working properly, the body's stress response enhances a person's ability to perform well under pressure.


Stress varies accordingly and a situation that feels stressful to one person may in fact be motivating to another.

The stress response is critical during emergency situations. It is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life, such as when a driver has to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. It can also be activated in a milder form at a time when the pressure's on but there's no actual danger, like stepping up to take a penalty that could win the game, getting ready to go to your wedding, or sitting down for a final exam.

A little of this stress in small doses is not bad for us and can help us to perform better and motivate us to do our best so we are ready to rise to a challenge. Afterwards the nervous system quickly returns to its normal state, standing by to respond again when needed.

But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode and stressed over a long period of time, like coping with a divorce or moving to a new neighbourhood or school, this can leave a person feeling depleted or overwhelmed and your mind and body pay the price which causes problems to our health, mood, productivity and relationships etc. 

Signs of Stress Overload

People who are experiencing stress overload may notice some of the following signs:

  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or even chest pain
  • Allergic reactions, such as eczema or asthma
  • Problems sleeping due to overactive mind and too much thinking
  • Drinking excessively and smoking
  • Overeating
  • Sadness/Depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating

There is a very strong connection between stress and back pain. Stress causes a release of stress hormones, which in turn causes muscles to tighten up. Muscle tension reduces blood flow to the tissues, known as Stagnation, which means there is reduced supply of oxygen and nutrients to the muscle tissues and the acidic waste products (by-products of muscular activity from the muscles) are not taken away as efficiently as they should be and therefore creates a build up of acidic waste products (Toxins) in the tissues. Reduced blood flow therefore delays healing and muscles let you know they are suffering via a cry for help through pain.

Tense back muscles increase back pain and pain increases tensing of muscles - a vicious cycle of stress and back pain can be created if not dealt with quickly and effectively.


Reducing Stress

Relieving stress can reduce pain that is aggravated or caused by tense muscles. Managing stress on an ongoing basis may also help prevent back pain from occurring in the first place.

Caffeine and nicotine can have the effect of creating a sense of anxiety even when you aren't anxious about anything. Cutting down your intake of stimulants may also help to reduce your stress level.


Stress can be relieved somewhat through exercise. Aerobic exercise is a particularly effective form of exercise for relieving stress as it burns off stress hormones and increases the body's production of endorphins (naturally occurring chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood). This causes muscles to relax and BP, heart rate and respiration decreases - which is the exact opposite to the stress response.

Stretching exercises also can relieve stress and help loosen tight muscles. Yoga incorporates poses that increase strength and flexibility with breathing techniques to relieve stress. Soaking in warm water also helps as it has a calming effect by relaxing muscles and increasing the blood circulation.

In reality, though some situations and people cannot be avoided, such as rush-hour traffic, deadlines at work or an uncompromising boss. So some anxiety will always just be part of everyday life.

Treatment for Stress

Sometimes exercise and stretching alone are not enough to counteract the effects of the stress response. This is where therapies such as Acupuncture, Cupping, Massage and Cranial Therapy are very beneficial for relaxing muscles, by increasing the blood circulation and therefore the muscles fuel supply, removing the stagnation of blood and therefore the toxic build up stored in the tissue.


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