The morning ritual. Coffee is the way many of us start our day. The smell of it brewing, the sound of the espresso machine at your favorite coffee shop, and the best part… the taste. So rich and flavorful; add a splash of cream (and sugar for some of you), and what could be better?
I’ve always been more of a tea kind of guy, but a good cup of coffee or cappuccino after a nice dinner out is the bee’s knees. There is even evidence to suggest that coffee consumption may prevent or reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and certain types of cancers (which are diseases that I think we would all like to avoid).
Unfortunately coffee may have some downsides, though, and one of them could be the cause of your back pain.
The Back Story…
When I was an acupuncture student, I remember one of my favorite teachers saying, “When somebody comes in for back pain, especially Non-Specific Low Back Pain, before you even bother with a big fancy TCM diagnosis, ask them how much coffee they are drinking. If it’s more than 2 cups it might be a contributing factor. If it’s more than 4 cups, it might be the cause.”
This teacher’s word was the gospel to me (he was the Dr. House of diagnosis at my school), and I’ve always heeded his advice. Back pain is the bread and butter of most acupuncturists and it certainly has been mine. After treating hundreds of cases, I’ve noticed the patients that don’t drink coffee (or those who significantly decrease their intake) get better the quickest and face a way lower chance of reoccurrence. I’ve also have had many tell me that after stopping coffee, their back pain disappeared.
So while I was enjoying a cup from my favorite Portland roaster, Stumptown, earlier this week, I got to wondering what is actually the mechanism behind coffee and back pain. Of course I pulled up google and typed in “coffee and back pain.” To my surprise, the only thing with relevance was a blog post from 2007 from a now defunct blog.
The post itself, Coffee Drinkers Beware, didn’t even mention back pain, but the main thread in the comment section included numerous testimonials about people curing their chronic back pain by abstaining from coffee. So I began changing my search and hitting up Google Scholar and Science Daily.
After f-ing around for way too long reading abstracts and journal articles, I only found one little excerpt in the methodology section of a study even acknowledging a relationship between back pain and coffee:
“The patients medical history was examined for exclusion and inclusion criteria, as well as other low back pain risk factors such as cigarette smoking, daily amount of coffee intake and number of pregnancies.”
So while there is a serious lack of research (that I can find), between my anecdotal evidence as a practitioner, the insight of my “bad-ass” teacher, numerous comments from a blog, and this tiny excerpt from a study, I’m still willing to say that the consumption of coffee at least plays a role in back pain.
Okay… But How?
The Wellness Renegade Hypothesis
First, let’s start out with some back pain 101. People with back pain have tight muscles. In treating hundreds of cases, I’ve only seen two without muscle tension and they had severe neurological conditions. So even if you have arthritis, a slipped disc, an injury, sciatica, whatever the diagnosis, I’m willing to bet it all that you also have tight muscles and possibly spasms.
This is something, astonishingly, that is often overlooked in treatment. Despite the diagnosis, when these muscles are effectively loosened most back pain is resolved or greatly reduced. When the muscles tighten back up, the pain returns.
Possible Cortisol/Sympathetic Dominance Factors?
Coffee, Caffeine as a stimulant, and Cortisol are the main components of my theory. Cortisol is often called “stress hormone” or “fight or flight hormone.” Muscle tensing is one of the main physical symptoms of cortisol. Stimulants like caffeine shift the body into sympathetic dominance (fight or flight) and have been shown to increase cortisol.
Also, even moderate amounts of coffee can contribute to sleeplessness and insomnia – which can further elevate cortisol levels.
So what about tea? Despite the caffeine, tea has been shown to lower cortisol levels.
Does this seem like a stretch to you? I’m open to other theories. Some of the comments from the above mentioned blog suggest the dehydration from caffeine may be the culprit. But, current research shows that it would involve consuming large amounts to have any diuretic effect at all.
If You Have Back Pain, Try Taking a Break From Coffee.
Ever try to quit caffeine? It’s a rough process. But, if you suffer from back pain it might be worth the effort. I suggest a combination of switching to tea and then tapering off over time. The tea may help balance out your cortisol levels which could be the big problem anyway. At the worst, and your back pain isn’t resolved, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to conquer that addiction.
Have you noticed a correlation between your coffee drinking and back pain? Got a better theory on the connection? Please leave your comments below so we can get to the bottom of this!
(Also, for you google geniuses or research librarians, if you can find some better research, please drop us some links.)
Photo by josue64