With the arrival of spring, I’m looking forward to kissing an epic season of winter colds—and backaches—goodbye. For me, the two seem to go hand in hand. But can a cold or flu really cause back trouble? (I know it doesn’t help that I’m often doing things that aren’t great for my back, like rough-housing with my burly 5-year-old son or lifting my 2-year-old daughter in and out of her crib and high chair.)
To find out, I reached out to Mark Zawadsky, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC. “When you’re sick with the cold and flu,” Dr. Zawadsky explains, “stress hormones can potentiate the feeling of pain.” In other words, feeling sick can make you hyper-attuned to other aches and pains you might otherwise shrug off.
But there’s more. When you have a cold, the body makes pyrogens, a byproduct of cell breakdown, says John Stamatos, MD, director of interventional pain management at Syosset Hospital in Syosset, New York. “While these pyrogens create fevers and help your body fight infection, they’re also toxic to the body and contribute to that all-around achy feeling you get when you’re sick,” Dr. Stamatos says.
That’s because pyrogens tend to gather around nerves that transmit pain, which can heighten those nerves’ ability to transmit the pain. So if you’re already prone to an achy back, having a cold can worsen it.
Of course, Dr. Stamatos adds, “the physical act of coughing puts a huge amount of pressure on the epidural space” (a.k.a., the sac of fluid around your spinal cord), which can impact the nerves and lead to pain.
I’m relieved to know it wasn’t just my fevered imagination that led me to connect my miserable colds to my backaches. Meanwhile, I also learned a few more surprising things that can lead to back pain—check these out:
Pneumonia, an infection deep within the lungs, can often manifest as pain in the middle back. “It’s likely pneumonia—and not, say, a pulled muscle—if your back pain is associated with fever, difficulty breathing, and persistent cough,” explains Glenn Hardesty, D.O., emergency medicine physician at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital.
2. Kidney stones
A kidney stone can also feel like a muscle pull in the mid-back, around the rib cage, notes Dr. Zawadsky. You’ll know it’s something worse than a garden-variety backache if you have excruciating pain that comes on suddenly with no obvious injury. “Some women patients have told me that a kidney stone is a pain worse than childbirth,” notes Dr. Hardesty.
Women who are already susceptible to back pain can have their aches made worse by endometriosis, explains Dr. Stamatos. The condition, in which the uterine lining grows outside the uterus and irritates surrounding tissue, often causes abdominal and lower back pain that spikes during the menstrual period.
Michael Gollust is the Research Editor at Health Magazine.