Could your stiff back be a sign of stress?

Award-winning physiotherapist Nikki Robinson shares five ways to heal your back, and your anxiety


Could your stiff back be a sign of stress?

Have you ever struggled to straighten your back when you have been sitting or bending over? Does your tummy tie itself in knots when you are stressed or worried?  

Both these symptoms are caused by your psoas muscle, also known as the fight or flight muscle. It is one of your core muscles and you have one on each side. They run from the front of your hips, through your pelvis and attach to the front of your lower spine.

Their main action is to flex your hips, but they also help to stabilise the base of your spine. Psoas is the only muscle that connects your trunk to the lower part of your body and passes from the front to the back of your body.

When you are stressed, in a dangerous situation, or have physical trauma, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) causes the psoas muscles to tighten. This protective response should only last for a couple of hours, but for many people this tension is never released and it becomes normal.

Your brain interprets the tension as a sign of danger and keeps the sympathetic nervous system on high alert. This cycle of chronic stress can lead to pain, tightness, fatigue and breathing and digestive problems.

How to help yourself

1. Listen to your body

Tension usually builds up before pain, so if you notice that your psoas is tightening, use it as a warning that your body is not happy. That might be connected to an old problem that you are holding on to or it might be a new danger your body has perceived. Either way if you continue to do the same thing, psoas will get tighter and cause more problems.

2. Breathe

If you feel that you are breathing faster or using your shoulders to breath, diaphragmatic breathing can help. Place a hand on your belly to help you feel if you are using your diaphragm properly – it should gently rise and fall with your breath. If you are in pain whenever you move, the natural response is to tense up and hold your breath. This makes pain worse, and you probably end up feeling very tense. So before you try to move with pain, relax the parts of your body that you can, and gently blow out as you move.

3. Drink water

Dehydration makes your joints and muscles tighter and less flexible, causing pain and stiffness. Cells can become damaged, which affects their ability to work properly, leading to your physical and mental performance suffering. So by making sure that you drink enough (the European Food Safety Authority recommends that women should drink about 1.6 litres and men should drink about 2.0 litres of fluid daily) you can help your mind and body to function properly.

4. Stretch!

Tight psoas muscles tend to pull other parts of your body into tension too, so you may feel pain and tightness anywhere. Stretching is your body’s way of reducing tension that has built up and you can use it whenever you need to, wherever you are. The simple rules to follow are:

  • Never stretch into pain – stop when you feel resistance
  • Gently hold the stretch at your barrier until you feel it soften or lengthen
  • Follow your body to find the next point of resistance

5. Get help

Sometimes your mind and body are held so deeply in the stress cycle, it is difficult to change the reactions of a lifetime. Even if you are doing all the right things, it is a good idea to get treatment to release the bits that you can’t get to. This may be hands-on therapy such as Myofascial Release, or exercises such as Yoga or Pilates. The important thing is to find an approach that suits you.

Nikki Robinson is a multi award-winning specialist physiotherapist. She qualified as a physiotherapist in 1993 and founded her Myofascial Release practice, Holisticare in 2006. Patients travel from all over the UK for the expert treatment that changes the lives of people who think they can’t be helped.

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