According to the latest statistics, lower back pain affects over 80% of the U.S. population and is the second highest cause of disability in the country. And while most lower back pain is caused by a physical condition or disease, such as disc degeneration or sciatica, there are some cases in which emotional and psychological stress can contribute to pain in the lower back which can require a lower back pain treatment program from a chiropractor to correct the problem.
How Stress Affects Spinal Health
Stressful situations and environments are a pervasive part of everyday life. From emotional stressors at work to poor air quality, to chronic anxiety, stress has a profound negative impact on our lives both mentally and physiologically.
The American Psychological Association (APA) divides stress into three distinct categories: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. The most common of these types is acute stress, which is often sudden and temporary, but which can still harm your life. Chronic stress is constant and permeates every aspect of your life, such as poverty or living in an abusive home and can have serious psychological consequences. Episodic acute stress is characterized by everyday acute stress that has affected a person to the point where their natural state is chaos.
Within these categories are different types of stress, including chemical, traumatic, and emotional. When acute stress is emotional, it can sometimes manifest as physical disorders such as sleeplessness, fatigue, weight gain or loss, and mood disorders.
These physical consequences of stress can contribute to hormonal imbalance, poor spinal health, poor posture, and create tension in the muscle surrounding the spine, including the lumbar spine, which causes pain. In some cases, prolonged emotional stress can exacerbate preexisting untreated lower back issues.
Lower Spine Anatomy
The lumbar spine made up of five lumbar vertebrae and are the largest unfused vertebrae in the spinal column. They are responsible for bearing most of your body weight and are susceptible to pain from both internal and external stressors. Pain in this area can severely limit your overall mobility as the lumbar spine connects to the sacral spine to facilitate the rotation movement needed for walking and running.
Symptoms of Stress-Related Lower Back Pain
Stress-related lower back pain symptoms can be challenging to diagnose as there may not be a single identifiable incident or exact time when the pain started, and many times the symptoms can be confused with the symptoms of other lower back pain conditions. This type of lower back pain can come on slowly or disappear altogether then reappear during times of stress.
Some of the symptoms you may experience include diffuse muscle aches, tender muscles, sleeplessness or daytime fatigue, and lower back pain that seems to move around. As many of the symptoms are non-specific, it can be challenging to create a treatment plan.
Often, chiropractic treatment for stress-related lower back pain incorporates a range of therapies to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation in the muscles and joints affected by the pain, and address the source of the stress.
Diagnosing Stress-Related Lower Back Pain
Unfortunately, many members of the medical community do not credit the link between psychological and emotional stress and back pain. The holistic approach of chiropractic therapy works using the principle that everything in the body is connected through the spine.
To diagnose stress-related lower back pain, your chiropractor will first perform an initial exam to determine whether there could be any other underlying cause such as disc degeneration, herniation, sprains, or strains. This exam may include an MRI or ultrasound of the area along with some stretching and massage to establish your range of mobility.
In some cases, an emotional or psychological stressor can exacerbate an already existing condition causing your back pain. For such a problem, the course of treatment must address both the internal stress and the primary cause of the pain.
Treatment for Lower Back Pain Due to Stress
Treatment for lower back pain due to stress will vary according to the patient’s symptoms, medical history, and initial exam. Your chiropractor may recommend a comprehensive treatment program that includes multiple complementary therapies and lifestyle changes to both treat the painful symptoms and the underlying stress causing the pain.
Spinal manipulation is a collection of techniques used by chiropractors to restore mobility and function to the spine and reduce pain. It effectively uses a high-velocity low-amplitude thrust to the spine where the patient is experiencing pain. Sometimes your chiropractor may position in different poses to find the right angle to correct the misalignment. These thrusts are often accompanied by an audible cracking sound indicating gases released from the joints.
Your chiropractor may use manual or mechanical techniques to manipulate the spine. One of the most effective methods of spinal manipulation of the lower back is the Cox Technique, which uses a specially designed moveable table. The table allows the chiropractor to use flexion and distraction to move the spine while performing manual manipulations, as well as providing some spinal decompression to reduce pressure on the spinal nerves, which can alleviate pain.
Though typically used for disc injuries, various methods of spinal decompression can be used to reduce pressure on the spinal discs and nerves to restore a full range of motion.
One method that is effective for lower back pain is Kennedy Neural-Flex Spinal Decompression. This technique uses a specialized traction table to create flexion and distraction of the spine while the chiropractor adjusts the spine. Unlike other traction and decompression methods, Kennedy Neural-Flex offers a gentle, pain-free lower back pain treatment that is often used in conjunction with other pain relief therapies such as hot-cold therapy and targeted strengthening exercises.
Hot and Cold Therapy
Some aspects of a chiropractic treatment program to address stress-related lower back pain may focus primarily on pain relief. Hot and cold therapy is an effective alternative to pharmaceutical painkillers to relieve pain in the lower back that has zero side effects. Heat and cold packs are used to control blood flow to the area to promote healing and facilitate the uptake of nutrients to damaged muscles and nerve cells.
During your session, your chiropractor will apply cold packs for specific periods to the painful area of the lumbar spine to help reduce inflammation. Then, apply a heat pack to the same area to boost blood flow. The heat pack also assists in the release of tense muscles and can encourage an overall calming effect in the patient.
Stress puts your body into a state of high arousal, which can cause muscles to tense up. Overly tense muscles in the lumbar region can cause a painful sensation and significantly limit your range of mobility.
One treatment method that has consistently shown to be effective for relieving lower back pain is massage therapy. Studies show that massage not only improves blood flow and aids healing but also causes the body to release endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller and mood enhancer. Massage has also been shown to improve sleep quality. Massage is often used in conjunction with spinal manipulation to relieve tight muscles and make the adjustments more effective.
The muscle release following massage therapy can also help to release built-up negative emotions, which can be the root cause of the stress. Allowing yourself to feel these emotions can help your mind and body process them more effectively.
There are a few different techniques your chiropractor may use depending on the location and severity of your lower back pain.
- Deep tissue massage uses firm sustained pressure when applying massage strokes across the muscle grain to access deeper muscle layers for a more effective release of tension. This technique is used on specific areas.
- Myofascial release therapy focuses on massage strokes on the connective tissues in muscles and joints. Gentle pressure is applied to the fascia to stretch and strengthen muscles to improve the patient’s range of motion. Typically, therapy is conducted over several sessions and often combined with an at-home stretching and exercise regime to enhance the effect of the therapy.
- Trigger point therapy is used when muscle tightness in one part of the body is causing pain in the lower back. Massage is typically sustained pressure to the tight muscle while the patient actively participates by deep breathing to allow better access to the painful trigger point.
Electric Muscle Stimulation
During electric muscle stimulation, the chiropractor uses small electrodes that are placed on the skin, which then emit short electrical pulses which cause the muscles to contract and release rapidly. This contraction and release causes the muscles to fatigue and, in the process, increases blood flow and releases endorphins.
This treatment method may be used on patients whose lower back muscles feel too tender for massage therapy. Studies have shown that electric muscle stimulation not only alleviates pain, though the exact mechanism is still debated, it also strengthens weakened muscles which can help improve patient’s mobility in the lower back and improve posture.
Bioresonance therapy has commonly been used in holistic medicine as a successful diagnostic tool and treatment for a range of health disorders. However, recent scientific studies have demonstrated that bioresonance therapy was effective at relieving lower back pain and improving overall physical and emotional wellbeing.
Holistic medicine suggests that bodies are a series of complex interconnected energy systems and external stressors such as toxins or poor lifestyle can throw these systems out of balance. Bioresonance therapy aims to identify these energy imbalances and provide external energy input to correct the problem.
Bioresonance therapy devices work by attaching electrodes to your skin at the site of pain, then attaching those electrodes to a Bicom machine which reads the energy wavelengths emitted by the area. The mode can be changed to emit inverse wavelengths into the area to counteract the negative waves and bring the body back into a balanced state.
Your chiropractor may recommend Bioresonance as part of an integrative approach to alleviating stress-related lower back pain.
Though chiropractors typically focus on the skeletal, muscular system to return the body into alignment and alleviate pain, your chiropractor may also use physical therapy techniques to complement their adjustments.
Physical therapy for lower back pain may include gentle assisted stretches to improve the range of mobility and low impact exercises to help strengthen muscles surrounding the lumbar spine to improve function and boost blood flow.
Following your session, your chiropractor may also give you a selection of stretches and exercises to perform at home to enhance the in-session therapy.
As part of a comprehensive treatment program, your doctor may recommend that make some lifestyle changes to prevent your stress-related lower back pain from reoccurring. Some changes they may suggest can include:
- Improving the length and quality of your sleep. The right sleep is essential for regulating hormones that control cardiovascular functioning and stress responses. Too little sleep and you risk throwing your endocrine system out of balance which may indirectly contribute to your stress-related back pain. Aim for 6 – 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep in an environment conducive to deep relaxation and ask your chiropractor about lower back treatments for better sleep.
- Regular exercise to improve physical conditioning. Poor physical conditioning as a result of emotional or psychological stress can lead to muscle tension and weakness, which can cause persistent pain in the lower back. Regular exercise can help keep your muscles and skeletal system in optimal condition. Even a gentle daily walk for 30 minutes can have a significant positive impact on both your mental and physical wellbeing.
- Nutritional changes that include reducing the amount of salt and sugar in your diet, or a diet to help with weight loss as excess weight can place undue stress on the lower back and weaken the muscles used to support the lumbar spine. A nutritional counselor can be an effective way to find a personalized eating program that can help you reach your goals.
- Emotional counseling can help you to work through some of the emotional and psychological stress that may be manifesting as physical lower back pain. Your chiropractor may refer you to a licensed counselor who can help you implement coping strategies such as meditation or visualization to help manage your emotional stress.
Lower back pain is a common health issue that can often have no specific cause but may be a physical manifestation of emotional stress. Chiropractic treatment uses an integrated approach to healing that can help both alleviate the pain but also address the external stressors that caused the pain in the first place.