Back pain caused by anxiety – is it possible?

Yes, it’s possible.  As an osteopath in Edinburgh for 27 years now, I have seen many people who have had back pain caused by anxiety.  Before I explain fully, let’s just deal with “anxiety”.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a persistent/recurring unease often without an apparent cause.  This is different to stress.  In stress it’s obvious what the causes are.  And feeling stressed goes up and down as the stressors go up and down.   Some people are prone to anxiety.  It’s been said that anxiety is worrying about the future.  As opposed to depression which is worrying about the past.

Back pain caused by anxiety – what’s the evidence?

You can read in the scientific literature that people who have a history of anxiety more often experience back pain (and other pains).  This is true for depression too.

Isn’t it that anxiety is caused by back pain?

There’s no doubt that if you have recurring back pain you may become anxious.  How is that?  Because repeated sudden onsets of back pain are particularly likely to make you worried about future episodes.  However, coming back to the science… Long-term prospective studies have shown that people who have pre-existing anxiety are more likely to develop long-term back pain. (A prospective study is one that asks a group of people questions at the beginning.  Then it follows up – often over a number of years – and asks them the same questions to see what’s changed. And how different people at the beginning differ at the end).

So how is back pain caused by anxiety?

Remember the purpose of pain?  It’s an alarm system.  The centres in your mid and hind brain that are involved in pain have huge overlap with the mood parts of your brain.  Anxiety – like stress – can act as a volume control on your pain.  I’ve written about this many times before.  But this is not the same as saying “It’s all in your head”.  No, I’m simply saying that your head does influence how much pain you experience.  It might seem like a stupid thing to say, but it’s true to say “no brain, no pain.”  Essentially, if your alarm system is on alert, you are more likely to experience more pain.

Is this true causation?

So, am I really saying that you can experience back pain caused by anxiety, and only by anxiety?  I think that’s unlikely.  It’s more likely that you have had a physical problem with your back that has initiated the problem.  But a future episode or episodes of back pain could be entirely triggered by anxiety.  Rather than by some physical event. I hope that makes sense…

If you’d like to consult an Edinburgh osteopath specialising in back pain, via Skype or in-person, you can book an osteopath appointment online.