Back Pain and Stress
by Dr. Michael Crawford, D.C., D.A.A.P.M.

Have you ever rubbed the top of your upper back and felt tender knots in the muscle, complained of tension in your neck, woken with a crick in your neck, or gotten a spasm in your low back? Well if you have, you have felt the effects of stress on your body!

Hans Selye, a Canadian endrocrinologist, first began studying the effects of stress on the human body, and coined the term “stress” in his 1955 article “Stress and Disease”. Since then science and medicine have made all kinds of connections between stress and disease, heart problems and atherosclerosis being the most notable. As with most things defined in medicine, we attribute a spectrum of problems to stress. On the high end of the spectrum is heart attack and stroke, and on the low end of this spectrum is muscle pain.

When you feel tense, your muscles have tightened up. This usually happens in the neck, upper back, top of the shoulders, or in the low back. The contracting muscles use up the available oxygen and lactic acid begins to build up. As the lactic acid builds up, pain sensors are activated which then keep the muscles in contraction – a spasm, a painful spasm!

What kind of stress can cause these painful muscle spasms? Well stress is anything that causes some reaction by your body. Worrying about taxes, or a relationship, or stress at work are all stressors that we understand. Then there are good stresses, or eustress, as Dr. Selye described it. Good stress includes work or hobby that really satisfies you, study that you learn very well, earning a degree, growing a great garden, or dancing very well. Things that make you feel you’ve accomplished something.

During the past 20 years of treating people in pain here in Santa Fe, I have noticed times of the year that people are more prone to these painful muscle spasms. Times of weather change, blowing wind, and lots of pollen are the worst times. In the spring it’s the wind and juniper, in the fall – the days begin to get shorter, it starts to get dark earlier, our routine has to change, the ragweed and that stinky chamisa are in full pollination mode, smoke from the controlled burns is in the air, and the nights are getting cooler.

All of these things are stressors on your body, and may be causing increased tension in some part of your spine. You may just wake up with pain in the neck or low back, or you may reach to pick up something and “throw your back out”.

You can’t avoid most of the environmental stressors mentioned above, but you can balance them with good stress! If you walk for exercise, you need to balance that with stretching. If you sit at a computer, desk, or on a couch, you need both some exercise and stretching daily. And if you are already exercising and stretching, and still building up tension, you probably need to do more! But get some good advice first. I have found that most people are not doing the right stretches to reduce their tension, or the exercises they are choosing are just making things worse. I have also found that most people do not sit at their computer correctly and cause a lot of increased stress on the neck and back.

These pains usually respond very well to hands on treatment, but not to medications. My treatment always includes instruction in the proper stretching, and in how to sit at a computer properly. Please call 983-3037 for a consultation.

Dr. Michael Crawford, a native New Mexican, has practiced in Santa Fe for 20 years. He is a graduate of Los Angeles College of Chiropractic, has 100’s of hours of post doctoral study, and is Credentialed by the American Academy of Pain Management as a pain management specialist. You may contact him at 983-3037 and see more information at

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