Understanding Psychosomatic Back Pain

Category: Spine | Author: Stefano Sinicropi

Psychosomatic back pain is classified as an injury in which physical symptoms are caused by psychological or emotional factors. It’s a somewhat controversial topic in the spine care community, because some doctors argue that stress is the root cause of the back pain, while others argue that stress only serves to make a condition worse, and that stress isn’t actually the root cause of the pain.

Regardless of whether you believe stress is the root cause of your back pain, or it is merely a symptom that makes a physical ailment worse, we think it’s important to take a closer look at psychosomatic back pain and explain how it is diagnosed and treated.

The Stress Pain Cycle

Many of the theories on stress-related spine pain suggest that back pain is cyclical in nature, and stress is a trigger that makes the cycle harder to break. Here’s a brief look at how some believe stress affects the pain cycle.

  • Back pain limits a person’s ability to partake in pain-free activity.
  • The person then stops partaking in those activities due to fear of pain or further injury.
  • Stress, anxiety and fear or making the problem worse leads to a deconditioning or muscle groups, which leads to more back pain.
  • More pain leads to further reclusion from activity, and the cycle continues.

There’s also the suggestion that stress can lead to physical changes inside our bodies. Physicians theorize that stress can lead to changes in the body’s nervous system, including constriction of blood vessels and reduced blood flow to muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves in the spine. Due to this physical change of a reduction of oxygenated blood brought upon by stress, spinal structures may not be able to function at their highest level, which can lead to pain or an increased likelihood of injury.

Diagnosing and Treating Stress-Related Back Pain

Diagnosing psychosomatic back pain is harder than identifying something like a disc herniation with the assistance of an MRI, but it follows a similar method. Doctors will conduct a full medical exam and ask questions about your health, your symptoms and the stressors in your life. Imaging tests will usually be ordered to rule out certain conditions, and they may actually find a physical injury that is being affected by stress. For others, stress may be delaying the healing process of a physical injury like a spinal muscle strain.

Depending on what is found and what the underlying cause of pain is believed to be, your doctor will develop a treatment plan. As you might have guessed, reducing stress levels is a common theme for injuries that are brought upon by stress or those whose healing is inhibited by the condition. Identifying the stressors in your life and making positive changes can go a long way in helping your pain.

Other treatments involve staying active instead of shying away from activity due to fear that it could make a pain condition worse. Stretching, physical therapy and light exercise can not only help your physical condition, but they have also been shown to help reduce stress levels, which will also help your condition. Over-the-counter painkillers may also be prescribed, but most doctors will look for an active treatment strategy instead of a passive one, because active strategies besat help us break out of the pain cycle.

For more information about psychosomatic spine pain, reach out to Dr. Sinicropi’s clinic today.

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