Back pain is a huge pain in the back. The largest indicator of disability worldwide, chronic back pain is a problem for eight percent of all Americans, according to the Georgetown Health Policy Institute. The possible causes are many, but the most common include sitting too much and working out too little, the latter of which becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy, as those who suffer from back pain are also less likely to work out because of it.
But new research shows that chronic back pain isn’t just physical. In fact, those enduring a range of back discomfort may also be struggling with some deep-seated emotional issues. We've covered how our emotions are tied to other physical ailments like tight hips and shoulder tension; now, here's a closer look at what back pain might say about what's going on in your brain.
The Link Between Back Pain and Your Brain
Back pain can be intense and severely limiting to mobility. And back pain – specifically lower back pain – can have psychological causes.
For those prone to anxiety and “catastrophic thinking,” acute pain can actually become worse, according to world-renowned Harvard-trained psychiatrist, Dr. Srini Pillay.
“The pain itself can rewire your brain," Dr. Pillay writes in Harvard Health. "When pain first occurs, it impacts your pain-sensitivity brain circuits. But when pain lasts, the related brain activity switches away from the 'pain' circuits to circuits that process emotions. That’s why emotions like anxiety often take center stage in chronic back pain. And it’s why emotional control becomes that much more difficult.”
Physician Dr. John Sarno spent his career connecting somatic emotions to back pain, believing that back pain could be linked to Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). More specifically, he posited that repressed emotions could cause mild oxygen deprivation in the body and lead to physical pain. In other words, the body was actually distracting us from deep-seated emotions (many stemming from childhood) with lower back pain.
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"Some believe back pain is a somatic symptom created by the unconscious to distract us from emotional issues that we want to repress," writes Dr. Shawn Burn in Psychology Today. "Physician John Sarno says that tension from internalized pressure and rage leads to oxygen deprivation of the muscle and that’s where the pain comes from.”
Back Pain and Anger
The places where we hide stress in the body are tied to emotional health (you can read more about the remarkable link between your tight hips and emotions). Lower back pain, according to Dr. Sean Grover, a psychotherapist and author, is tied to tightly held anger. Patients who feel anger (repressed or conscious) may find it shows up in the form of lower back pain.
Science seems to back this up (excuse the pun). A study published in the September 2014 edition of Annals of Behavioral Health found that “suppression of anger” was linked to increased pain in those with chronic lower back pain.
Treatments for Back Pain
If back pain is truly linked to repressed emotions, some of which you might not even know you’re carrying around, what are you supposed to do about it?
Emotional releases can happen during deep yoga sessions as well as during massage therapy. When an area locked with tension is broken up, large emotional releases can take place.
For some, however, massage therapy isn’t enough. If pain doesn’t seem to be getting better with massage, says Darragh Simon, owner of Trinity Wellness and a licensed massage therapist with over two decades of experience, you might need to seek psychiatric therapy as well. Acupuncture is another effective means of unlocking deep-seated emotions and opening the chi so that pain and emotional blockages can be released. Either way, by tapping into the source of pain rather than the symptoms themselves, you'll be on your way to curing your pain for good.
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