No one would disagree that having back and neck pain causes stress, but what about the other way around? Can stress be the primary cause of your back pain?

Dr. John Sarno, Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University School of Medicine, and attending physician at the Howard A. Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, believes the answer to that question is yes. He coined the phrase Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) to describe stress-related back pain.

To be clear, no one is suggesting that the pain is all in your head. Rather, it is a result of very real physical problems which are being affected by emotional factors.

How does stress cause back pain?

Dr. Sarno’s theory is that patients who do not deal with their stress and anxiety push them out of their conscious awareness and into their unconscious. This unconscious tension starts a cascade of changes in the systems of the body:

  1. Constriction of blood vessels throughout the body
  2. Reduction of blood flow to the muscles and other tissues
  3. Decrease in oxygen in the muscles and tissues of the body
  4. Buildup of biochemical waste in the muscles

According to his theory, this cascade of events causes:

  • Muscle tension
  • Muscle spasms
  • Back pain

Diagnosing stress-related back pain

Your physician will conduct a thorough physical exam to rule out any serious spinal disorders such as a spinal tumor or infection, or structural causes such as a degenerated disc.

The symptoms are usually very similar to fibromyalgia and include:

  • Back pain and/or neck pain
  • Diffuse muscle aches
  • Muscle tender points
  • Sleep disturbance and fatigue

In many stress-related back pain cases, patients complain of the pain just from “moving around.”

Treatments for stress-related back pain

Two of the most common ways to treat back pain caused by stress are Dr. Sarno’s approach and the multidisciplinary approach.

Through a series of lectures and/or psychotherapy, Dr. Sarno’s approach helps the patient process their unconscious rage, anger, and stress and acknowledge that their back pain is a result of unconscious issues.

Most physicians use the multidisciplinary approach, which combines therapies to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and environmental issues the patient is dealing with.

Bottom line?

While it’s only a theory, many spine professionals do believe that stress can be the primary cause of back pain.

What do you think? Do you believe your back pain has been caused by stress? What helps you cope?

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