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Anxiety And Back Pain

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated March 7, 2022

Back Pain, Stiffness, Soreness, Tension, Spasms, Immobility - anxiety symptoms

Back pain, such as acute and chronic tension, stiffness, soreness, shooting pains, sharp stabbing pains, back spasms, and immobility are common symptoms of anxiety disorder, including anxiety and panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, and others.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and back pain symptoms.

Common Anxiety Back Pain Symptom Descriptions

  • You get frequent back pain, tension, stiffness, soreness, or back spasms.
  • It feels as if your back is often painful, tense, stiff, or sore.
  • Your back is so sore that it causes mild to severe immobility.
  • You regularly have back pain, back muscle tension, stiffness, and soreness.
  • Your back feels unusually tense, stiff, or sore from normal tasks.
  • Your sleep can also be disrupted due to chronic and unrelenting back pain.
  • You get sharp, shooting, or stabbing pains in your back but you haven’t done anything to cause them.
  • Anxiety back pain can also feel like a burning sensation in the back.
  • You get unexplained pain and tension between the shoulder blades.
  • You take pain relievers more frequently because of unrelieved back pain, tension, stiffness, and soreness.
  • Your back muscles frequently spasm seemingly for no reason.
  • You get acute or chronic back pain, tension, stiffness, soreness, shooting pains, or spasms seemingly for no reason. Your doctor has ruled out injury as the cause.
  • Even gentle movements, such as bending over, twisting, or pivoting can cause sudden back pain.
  • This symptom can also be experienced as a “pressure” anywhere on or in the back.

Anxiety back pain symptoms can affect one area of the back only, can shift and affect another area or areas in the back, can migrate all over and affect many areas of the back, or affect the entire back. They can also affect the upper back, middle of the back, or lower back only.

Back pain symptoms can occur rarely, frequently, or persistently. For example, you have back pain symptoms once in a while and not that often, have them off and on, or have them all the time.

Anxiety back pain symptoms can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety symptoms or occur by themselves. They can also precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and stress, or occur “out of the blue” and for no apparent reason.

Back pain symptoms can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. They can also come in waves where they are strong one moment and ease off the next.

Back pain anxiety symptoms can change from day to day and from moment to moment.

All the above combinations and variations are common.

Anxiety back pain, tension, stiffness, soreness, spasms, and immobility symptoms can seem more disconcerting when undistracted, resting, trying to sleep, or when waking up.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test, Anxiety Disorder Test, or Hyperstimulation Test.

The higher the rating, the more likely anxiety could be contributing to or causing your anxiety symptoms, including feeling like impending doom symptoms.

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How Anxiety Causes Back Pain Symptoms

Medical Advisory

Talk to your doctor about all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms.

Additional Medical Advisory Information.

When this symptom is caused by anxiety, stress, including anxiety-caused stress, is a common cause of acute and chronic back pain symptoms.[1][2][3]

Here are some of the more common reasons why anxiety can cause acute and chronic back pain symptoms:

1. Stress response

Anxious behavior (which creates anxiety) activates the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response.[4][5]

The stress response causes many body-wide changes that prepare the body for immediate emergency action.

Visit our “Stress Response” article for more information about its many changes.

anxiety back pain muscle groups

One of these changes includes tightening muscles so that the body is more resilient to injury. Tight muscles in the back can cause tension, stiffness, soreness, and restricted mobility.

In some instances, muscles can tighten so much that they become painful, sore, and spasm.

There are many muscle groups in the back. Any muscle or group of muscles can be affected by stress.

Anxiety and an accompanying stress response is a common cause of acute back pain, tension, stiffness, soreness, and muscle spasms.

As long as you're anxious and a stress response is active, you can have back pain symptoms.

2. Hyperstimulation

Frequent activation of the stress response, such as from overly anxious behavior, can cause the body to remain in a state of semi-stress response readiness. We call this state “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are powerful stimulants.[6][7]

Visit our “Hyperstimulation” article for more information about the many ways hyperstimulation can affect the body.

Hyperstimulation can cause changes of an active stress response even though a stress response hasn’t been activated.

As such, hyperstimulation can keep the body stressed and muscles tight, including the muscles in the back. Chronic back pain is a common symptom of hyperstimulation.

nervous system excitation dysregulation

Nervous System Excitation and Dysregulation

Hyperstimulation can also overly excite and stress the nervous system, which is primarily made up of neurons – cells that have an electrochemical makeup (the combination of electricity and chemicals).

Overly excited neurons can act erratically,[8][9] affecting nerve impulses that control muscle movement and tension. Chronic muscle tension, twitching, pain, and spasms are common indications of an overly stressed nervous system.

Moreover, research has shown that stress increases sensitivity and reactivity to pain.[10] As such, an overly excited and stressed nervous system can cause issues with pain, including chronic back pain problems.

Many doctors who specialize in back pain problems, such as Dr. Sarno, are now seeing a direct correlation between stress, including anxiety-caused stress, and back pain and tension.

Other Factors

Other factors can cause stress and cause and aggravate anxiety back pain symptoms, including:

Select the relevant link for more information.

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How To Get Rid Of Anxiety Back Pain Symptoms

When other factors cause or aggravate this anxiety symptom, addressing the specific cause can reduce and eliminate this symptom.

When an active stress response causes this symptom, ending the active stress response will cause this acute anxiety symptom to subside.

Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and needn’t be a cause for concern.

When hyperstimulation (chronic stress) causes back pain symptoms, eliminating hyperstimulation will stop anxiety back pain symptoms.

You can eliminate hyperstimulation by:

  • Reducing stress.
  • Containing anxious behavior (since anxiety creates stress).
  • Regular deep relaxation.
  • Avoiding stimulants.
  • Regular light to moderate exercise.
  • Eating a healthy diet of whole and natural foods.
  • Passively accepting your symptoms until they subside.
  • Being patient as your body recovers.

Visit our “60 Natural Ways To Reduce Stress” article for more ways to reduce stress.

As the body recovers from hyperstimulation, it stops sending symptoms, including anxiety back pain symptoms.

Symptoms of chronic stress subside as the body regains its normal, non-hyperstimulated health.

However, eliminating hyperstimulation can take much longer than most people think, causing symptoms to linger longer than expected.

As long as the body is even slightly hyperstimulated, it can present symptoms of any type, number, intensity, duration, frequency, and at any time, including this one.

Even so, since back pain is a common symptom of stress, including anxiety-caused stress, it's harmless and needn't be a cause for concern. It will subside when unhealthy stress has been eliminated and the body has had sufficient time to recover. Therefore, there is no reason to worry about it.

Anxiety symptoms often linger because:

  • The body is still being stressed (from stressful circumstances or anxious behavior).
  • Your stress hasn't diminished enough or for long enough.
  • Your body hasn't completed its recovery work.

Addressing the reason for lingering symptoms will allow the body to recover.

Most often, lingering anxiety symptoms ONLY remain because of the above reasons. They AREN'T a sign of a medical problem. This is especially true if you have had your symptoms evaluated by your doctor and they have been solely attributed to anxiety or stress.

Chronic anxiety symptoms subside when hyperstimulation is eliminated. As the body recovers and stabilizes, all chronic anxiety symptoms will slowly diminish and eventually disappear.

Since worrying and becoming upset about anxiety symptoms create stress, these behaviors can interfere with recovery.

Passively accepting your symptoms – allowing them to persist without reacting to, resisting, worrying about, or fighting them – while doing your recovery work will cause their cessation in time.

Acceptance, practice, and patience are key to recovery.

Keep in mind that it can take a long time for the body to recover from hyperstimulation. It's best to faithfully work at your recovery despite the lack of apparent progress.

However, if you persevere with your recovery work, you will succeed.

You also have to do your recovery work FIRST before your body can recover. The cumulative effects of your recovery work will produce results down the road. And the body's stimulation has to diminish before symptoms can subside.

  • Reducing stress.
  • Increasing rest.
  • Faithfully practicing your recovery strategies.
  • Passively accepting your symptoms.
  • Containing anxious behavior.
  • Being patient.

These will bring results in time.

When you do the right work, the body has to recover!

Short-term Remedies

Even though eliminating hyperstimulation will eliminate chronic anxiety symptoms, including back pain symptoms, some people have found the following strategies helpful.

However, keep in mind that each person can have a unique symptom experience since each person is somewhat physically, chemically, psychologically, and emotionally unique. What might work for one person might not for another.

  • Anything that reduces your body’s stress can help, such as deep relaxation, rest, and getting good sleep.
  • Regular light to moderate exercise can also help loosen tight muscles, such as those responsible for chronic back pain.
  • Heating pad (heat causes tight muscles to loosen).
  • Having a warm bath.
  • Have a massage.
  • Vibrator on the back (vibration can help loosen tight muscles and stop muscle spasms).
  • Avoiding stimulants (stimulants stress the body).
  • Muscle relaxants.
  • Gentle/mild stretching.
  • TENS machine
  • Slowing down a hectic schedule or lifestyle.
  • Taking some time off so that your body can reduce its stress.
  • Regular hobby/play time.
  • Whirlpool or hot tub (as long as the heat is comfortable and not distressing).
  • Having fun.
  • Laughter.
  • Being hugged, held, or caressed by your mate, spouse, or loved one.
  • Physiotherapy to relax and release tight back muscles.
  • If you work at a computer – be sure to get up, move around, stretch, and loosen muscles every hour.

ANY activity that helps you relax can help alleviate tight muscles.

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Therapy

Unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors cause issues with anxiety. As such, they are the primary reason why anxiety symptoms persist.[11][12][13]

Addressing your underlying factors (Level Two recovery) is most important if you want lasting success.

Addressing Level Two recovery can help you:

  • Contain anxious behavior.
  • Become unafraid of anxiety symptoms and the strong feelings of anxiety.
  • End anxiety symptoms.
  • Successfully address the underlying factors that so often cause issues with anxiety.
  • End what can feel like out-of-control worry.

All our recommended anxiety therapists have had anxiety disorder and overcame it. Their personal experience with anxiety disorder and their Master's Degree and above professional training gives them insight other therapists don't have.

If you want to achieve lasting success over anxiety disorder, any one of our recommended therapists would be a good choice.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to treat anxiety disorder, especially if you have persistent symptoms and difficulty containing anxious behavior, such as worry.

In many cases, working with an experienced therapist is the only way to overcome stubborn anxiety.

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Anxiety Back Pain Frequent Questions

Can anxiety cause back pain?

Yes! Since anxiety stresses the body, and stress can cause muscle tension and back pain, anxiety can cause acute and chronic back pain symptoms. Stress, including anxiety-caused stress, is a common cause of persistent back problems, such as pain, tension, stiffness, soreness, pressure, spasms, and immobility.

Can anxiety cause back pain at night?

Yes, anxiety can cause back pain at night. Many people notice their back pain is more severe and bothersome at night, causing problems with sleep.

Can anxiety back pain interfere with sleep?

Yes, anxiety back pain can cause problems with sleep, such as difficulty getting to sleep because of the pain, difficulty staying asleep because of being woken up with pain during the night, shorter restful sleep, and episodes of insomnia.

Can anxiety cause back pain between the shoulder blades?

Yes, anxiety can cause pain and burning between the shoulder blades. Many anxious people get back pain symptoms because of their anxiety issues, including between the shoulder blades.

Can anxiety cause a burning sensation in the back?

Yes, stress, including anxiety-caused stress, can cause pain and burning in the back and between the shoulder blades. Many anxious and stressed people get back pain and burning symptoms in the back.

Can back pain cause anxiety?

Anxiety is caused by apprehensive behavior. So back pain itself won’t cause anxiety. However, if you worry about back pain, worry can cause anxiety since worry is an example of apprehensive behavior.

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Prevalence

In an online poll we conducted, just over 83 percent of respondents said they had back pain symptoms because of their anxiety.

Additional Comments

If your doctor hasn’t found the cause of your back pain and you believe stress isn’t the sole reason for it, you might want to see a sport medicine doctor or physiotherapist. Often undiagnosed back pain comes from poor sitting habits, poor back posture, and even from out-of-shape hip and leg muscles.

Just because we can sit and walk doesn’t mean the muscles that support those activities are healthy. Working with a knowledgeable sport medicine doctor or physiotherapist can illuminate the cause, as well as provide at-home exercises that will eventually eliminate chronic back pain problems caused by soft tissue reasons.

Anxiety Back Pain Video

Play the clip below for Jim Folk's commentary about the anxiety symptom back pain. Jim Folk is the president of anxietycentre.com.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety disorders signs and symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including the anxiety symptom back pain.

References

1. Lundberg, U, et al. “Psychophysiological Stress Responses, Muscle Tension, and Neck and Shoulder Pain among Supermarket Cashiers.” NCBI PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 1999.

2. Ellegaard, Hanne , and Birthe D Pedersen. “Stress Is Dominant in Patients with Depression and Chronic Low Back Pain. A Qualitative Study of Psychotherapeutic Interventions for Patients with Non-Specific Low Back Pain of 3–12 Months' Duration.” BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, BioMed Central, 6 Sept. 2012.

3. Abdallah, Chadi G, and Paul Geha. “Chronic Pain and Chronic Stress: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” NCBI PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2017.

4. Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.

5. Godoy, Livea, et al. "A Comprehensive Overview on Stress Neurobiology: Basic Concepts and Clinical Implications." Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience, 3, July 2018.

6. Hannibal, Kara E., and Mark D. Bishop. “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014.

7. Justice, Nicholas J., et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder-Like Induction Elevates β-Amyloid Levels, Which Directly Activates Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Neurons to Exacerbate Stress Responses.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 11 Feb. 2015.

8. Z, Fatahi, et al. "Effect of acute and subchronic stress on electrical activity of basolateral amygdala neurons in conditioned place preference paradigm: An electrophysiological study." Behavioral Brain Research, 29 Sept. 2017.

9. Laine, Mikaela A, et al. “Brain Activation Induced by Chronic Psychosocial Stress in Mice.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017.

10. Geva, N, et al. “Acute Psychosocial Stress Reduces Pain Modulation Capabilities in Healthy Men.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2014.

11. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012.

12. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017.

13. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.