I was only 26 years old when I started experiencing muscle spasms in my lower back.
I would be working at my desk or sitting in a meeting, and my lower back would suddenly go into spasm. The spasm would cause me so much pain that I would be immobilised in my chair for the next few minutes.
Back pain is one of the MOST common factors that reduce quality of life! For me, it affected my sleep, my energy levels, and my mood. I was tired and highly irritable especially with my family.
As a Pilates and Movement teacher now, I see plenty of people who suffer from back pain. There are physiological reasons such as a bulging disc, poor posture, or strained muscles that cause back pain. These are all valid reasons BUT more often that not, stress is a major root cause that unfortunately is often ignored.
"Stress is a MAJOR root cause of back pain that unfortunately is often ignored."
How does stress cause back pain?
Let’s start by understanding what happens in our body when we are stressed. The stress response is a built in emergency system that helps us deal with dangerous situations. When the stress response is activated, your brain releases hormones that prepare you to fight or run away. That's why it's called fight or flight!
Stress affects your posture. When you are stressed, you adopt what is called a stress posture. You may slouch, hold your shoulders up, clench your abdominals, or do all three! Combined with reduced blood circulation and increased muscular tension (you stiffen up!) from being in the fight or flight mode, your body undertakes a lot more strain.
Stress affects your breathing. Stress causes you to take short shallow breaths which overworks the accessory muscles which are in your neck, shoulders, and upper back. This causes a lot of tension which in turn affects other parts of your back and body.
Stress makes you more sensitive to pain. Your body releases cortisol that causes feelings of anxiety because it is this sense of fear and apprehension that puts you on high alert for potential threats. As such, you become more sensitive to physical sensations than someone who is not under stress.
Stress and back pain creates a vicious circle. The more stress you are, the more tense and sensitive you are. This may create more pain which causes you more anxiety and stress. It can become a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.
Stress is not a bad thing BUT when you are constantly stressed, your body is in this state ALL THE TIME. So you can see a Chiropractor, go for Pilates and Yoga, and have as many back massages as you like.
"But, if you are not addressing the root cause, your back pain is not going away."
That’s why it’s SO IMPORTANT to understand how your body responds to stress. In our previous post on stress, we created a stress toolkit that helps you identify your stress symptoms, and find out what are the stress-relief techniques that work for you. You can download it here.
How do I know if my back pain is caused by stress?
Here’s a simple survey that would help you find out.
1) When did the back pain start? This would help you understand if your back pain was triggered by physical activity, external trauma, or specific stressful situations.
2) Are there any situations or people in particular which trigger your back pain or when you feel the back pain most?
3) The next time you notice the back pain; observe if you are feeling anxious, if your breathing is shallow, if your heart is beating faster, or if your muscles are tense. This is one of the signs that your back pain could be stress related.
4) Finally ask yourself how have you been treating your body recently? Have you given yourself enough time to rest? Have you been overworking? Your body is highly intelligent and the back pain is your body’s way of sending you a message that there’s something that needs your attention.
"For me, I realised that being in a job that was misaligned with my beliefs and how I wanted to impact the world was stressing me out."
My back spasms miraculously disappeared the moment I started on a side project, which I planned to work full time on eventually.
So how do I make my back pain go away for good?
Breaking the stress-back pain cycle involves an equal part focus on treating the physiological conditions that are causing the physical pain, AND reducing stress levels sufficiently so that your body stops exhibiting back pain as a sign of stress.
A combination of deep breathing and a healthy amount of movement can be very effective in improving the strength and mobility of your back.
Deep Breathing – When you are feeling stressed or in pain, breathing is something that is accessible to you immediately. Using deep breathing techniques to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (your body’s relax mode) is a proven and highly effective method for stress and pain relief that is well backed by scientific and anecdotal evidence. Deep breathing also activates the core muscles that supports your torso.
Move Your Body - It is very tempting to just lie down and not move when you have back pain, BUT movement is KEY to a healthy back and spine.
"Do you know that the only way the intervertebral discs gets nutrients is through spinal movement?"
It’s important to remember that our spine and body are designed to move. When we don't move, our muscles become tight and weak which only makes things worse.
Having said that, remember to always listen to your body and do what feels right for you. So stop or reduce the range of movement if you feel any sharp pain or discomfort.
I highly recommend doing this sequence after a long day at work. This is a very relaxing sequence that will calm your mind, stretch out your back, and loosen out all those stress knots.
Enjoy and let me know how you feel after!
Zi is the Co-Founder of HASIKO, a certified Pilates instructor, and Franklin Method Spine Instructor. Feel free to reach out to her if you have any questions!