Can Stress Increase Women’s Risk of Spinal Problems?

As we age, we face a growing likelihood that we will experience lower back pain and cervical spine pain: our vertebral discs wear down and grow more brittle and we develop arthritis and inflammation in our joints.

But a new study has found that postmenopausal women who endure a significant amount of stress are at even greater risk for back issues. Researchers found that social strain can lead older women to a greater risk for osteoporosis and fractures.

The six-year-long study was conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson and involved over 11,000 postmenopausal women. Each submitted to bone mineral density tests and mood assessments during the course of the study, rating their stress, the level of negativity in their relationships, how much support they received from their social network, and the quality of their relationships. Their responses were then compared to their bone density studies.

According to Shawna Follis, the study’s lead author, each one-point increase in social strain was associated with 0.082% greater loss in bone density in the neck, 0.108% greater bone density loss at the hip, and 0.069% greater bone density loss in the lower spine. Each of these decreases makes it more likely that the women would eventually experience lower back or neck pain requiring intervention.

Speaking of the impact of stress on postmenopausal women’s bodies and overall health, Follis wrote, “Fractures are a major societal burden affecting 1 in 2 older women, due to a variety of risk factors that lead to bone loss. We found that high social stress is one risk factor that increases bone loss in aging women.” Her study made corrections to account for other factors that could have reduced bone density, including smoking, weight, hormone therapy, physical activity, and age at menopause.

Interestingly, different types of stress had specific impacts: where women reported lower social functioning, the bone density loss was more likely to occur in the neck and hip, while women who reported low levels of social support were more likely to experience bone mineral density loss in the neck.

Though the study did not make a direct link between stress and osteoporosis, fractures or falls, its results suggest that postmenopausal women might benefit physically from stress management.

According to Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, director of midlife health at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, Virginia and executive director emeritus of the North American Menopause Society, “For women who are anxious or have higher social stress levels, mindfulness, cognitive therapy, self-calming strategies, yoga, counseling, access to community building, or, if needed, medications might decrease the psychosocial stress levels.”

Suffering from osteoporosis makes it far more likely that you will experience spine pain in the future, and the vertebral compression fractures that can result from the condition can lead to the need for minimally invasive spine surgery.

If you are having lower back or neck pain, our spine specialty practice in New Jersey can help. Contact us today to set up an appointment and discuss the best options for you.

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