Does COVID Cause Back Pain? What Studies Show

Is Back Pain a COVID Symptom?

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

COVID-19: we’ve all been dealing with this pandemic for what feels like far too long. First, we were watchful for the first indications of any infection. Now we’re starting to experience some of its longer-term consequences, including lingering aches and pains. Specialists have had time to research the question of whether or not COVID impacts chronic pain, including back pain, and if so, how. 

While researchers are still searching for more comprehensive answers, we do have some initial results. 

In this article, we’ll be discussing links between COVID and back pain, including: 

  • Is back pain a sign of COVID?
  • Can COVID-19 make chronic back pain worse? 
  • How should people deal with COVID-related chronic back pain?
  • What are some general tips for dealing with COVID-related aches and pains?

Is back pain a sign of COVID? 

While aches and pains in general can be part of the set of symptoms that often characterize COVID-19, it’s hard to say that back pain means you’re definitely infected. 

Research has shown that COVID-19 infections can lead to some people developing chronic pain; COVID-19 can also exacerbate already existing chronic pain. About 38% of people who have had COVID-19 infections have also experienced muscle weakness or fatigue, for example, and sometimes these sensations persist. In general, the infection itself, the isolation related to the pandemic and the difficulty of managing pain during pandemic conditions can all lead to worsening pain.  

Can COVID-19 make chronic back pain worse? 

There are many ways to manage COVID-related pain, which we’ll get into below. First we’ll walk through a few of the specific ways COVID-19 can make back pain worse and how COVID back pain may feel:

  • Inflammation of the muscles (myositis) can increase during and after COVID-19 infections, and can be linked to various conditions, including nutrient-related irregularities. Having a viral infection like COVID-19 can also prompt the body to release chemicals aimed at defeating invading pathogens, and these chemicals can irritate healthy body tissues, too. So a little inflammation is a sign of healing, but continued inflammation in the many muscles involved in the back can cause soreness and lead to chronic pain, or can exacerbate an already hurting upper or lower back.
  • Arthritis can be caused by viral infections in some cases, and viral infections can also worsen pre-existing forms of arthritis, including arthritis in the joints of the spine.
  • Myofascial pain happens when the fascial layers, which are coverings around large, bundled muscle groups, get tight and tender. Myofascial pain is characterized by deep penetrating pain in one main muscle area. These pains are called trigger points, and can sometimes cause radiating pain farther away from the trigger point, too. 
  • Muscular atrophy can kick in with hospitalization or extended bed rest, particularly in the legs. These losses can add up quickly, detracting from your body’s ability to walk, maintain good posture and breathe deeply. Even just resting a lot can give muscles so much of a break that they start to stiffen from disuse, possibly making pain even worse. 
  • Rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening condition involving muscular degeneration and possible kidney failure, has been reported in some COVID-19 patients. Pronounced muscle pain, fatigue and urinary changes characterize rhabdomyolysis. This condition is not common, but it’s still good to be aware of it. 

What about back pain and “long haul” COVID-19?

As COVID-19 continues to affect us, doctors and researchers have noticed that many people who have gone through COVID-19 infections continue to experience apparently related symptoms, even weeks or months after their infection.

While we’re still learning how long infection-related symptoms may keep lingering, sore muscles are often among these symptoms, and some patients report that “long haul” COVID-related back pain can feel particularly deep and pronounced. Fatigue and brain fog can often accompany these back aches, unfortunately. 

How should people deal with COVID-related chronic back pain?

Pace yourself. While you don’t have to be perfect (and please don’t put that burden on yourself!), if you’re dealing with post-COVID muscular pain, you’re trying to strike the balance between resting and moving. How should you figure that balance out? 

Start small and steady. Try some of your normal, everyday activities, and don’t be afraid to take it slow if that feels better. The important thing is simply to keep moving. If it hurts too much, take a breather and try again. Moving will help keep your muscles limber, which can actually reduce certain aches and pains.

Depending on your specific situation, a few other tips may help.

Posture

Good posture can correct some of the stress and strain placed on your spine when you sit akimbo, slump too much, look down at your phone or screen too much, or otherwise tip or twist your vertebral column out of alignment. 

When sitting, aim for 90 degree angles with your chin, pelvis, and knees. When standing, keep your shoulders back and your body balanced in a line. Strong abdominal muscles help keep your bones stacked. Setting an alarm so you can periodically stand up, stretch, and reset your posture can also help. 

Move well

Even those of us in pain can forget to lift boxes with our knees or to carry weight close to our body. When you’re moving around, then, pay attention to what you’re doing. Strive to move smoothly and with intention. Breathe deeply while you’re moving to avoid anticipating pain too much and clenching your muscles, which could make the pain worse. 

Exercise well

Try 30 minutes a day of yoga, tai chi, stretching, swimming, or whatever other back-friendly exercise works for you.

Work with your jaw and shoulder pain

Does your jaw ache as well as your back? Or do your shoulders hurt? Many of us store stress in our shoulders, unconsciously tightening the muscle fibers too much. We can clench our jaws, too, even while sleeping, and the tension from that muscular clenching can travel through the neck and upper back, sometimes showing up as upper back pain. If you notice tightness in your jaws or shoulders, try to clench the muscles even more, then release all that muscular tension while breathing out. This reminds your body to relax. Try to check in from time to time to see if stress is creeping back.

Make sleep a priority

Is your back pain keeping you from sleeping? Make sure you follow good sleep advice in general, such as sleeping in a dark room and refraining from exercise, caffeine, or screens too close to bedtime. Invest in pillows that help cradle your head and neck, if you haven’t already, and try hot showers or baths before bed if you find them relaxing. If your doctor approves, take pain medication or use a pain cream before sleeping. Try to go to bed already tired, with a list of calming things to think about.

What are some general tips for dealing with COVID-related aches and pains?

The basics of foundational health and lifestyle medicine will serve you well if you are dealing with general COVID-related aches and pains. That means to:

Eat well

If you haven’t tried it out already, consider a low-inflammation eating plan. In short, that means choosing lots of bright fruits and vegetables while avoiding sugar and fried or fatty foods. Some foods can inflame tissues in the body, leading to more pain, while other foods and supplements can help soothe the pain.

Move regularly

If you have chronic back pain, you may worry about further injuring your back if you move too much. That fear or anxiety can keep you immobile though, which leads to muscular stiffness, higher risks of injury and more pain. Instead of worrying, encourage yourself to move slowly, smoothly, and regularly. Breath deeply. Complete a set of stretches. Take it a little at a time.

Evaluate your coping habits

You’ve probably heard all the advice in the book. Don’t smoke. Don’t put on too much weight. Don’t drink or overdo your prescription drugs; don’t give in to too much compulsive gambling or shopping. All those ‘don’ts’ can feel a little overwhelming. They’re well meant — smoking does, after all, increase your chances of inflammation and muscle pain, and carrying too much weight can strain weakened muscles and joints. Yet rather than focusing on do-nots, you may want to consider what actually serves you well. Perhaps you’d like to slowly, manageably focus on decreasing the habits that don’t help you very much while pouring more time and attention into the “do’s”: the habits that set you up for success, like getting out of bed at a certain time, figuring out how your friends can best support you, and coming with up ideas to handle stress proactively.

Get support

Find out what works for you in terms of helping tame back pain. For some, that’s massage or meditation, while others choose physical or occupational therapy

Plan to make a good plan

While pain is not under your absolute control, you do control many of the ways your body processes and manages chronic pain, including back pain. Plan, then, to follow strong management strategies, including using strong mental habits, too. 

Get vaccinated

While vaccination can be a very personal choice, in general it helps reduce the risk of becoming infected with COVID. 

You only have one spine, so it pays to take good care of it. If you’re not experiencing much spinal pain, that’s great. Stay strong and prevent injuries with rest, regular exercise, and solid habits. If you do have a lot of spinal pain, we feel for you. It can be very trying to hurt in such an integral part of your body, especially when COVID is making everything more challenging in general. We hope these tips will help. 

Getting support for back pain

If you’re interested in exploring a big-picture, personalized way of approaching chronic pain management, consider trying Clearing. We offer tailored plans, which, depending on what’s right for you, can include prescription compound cream, nutraceuticals, CBD cream, personalized home exercises, health coaching and access to advanced pain specialists. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.