Medically reviewed by Dr. Brian Paris, D.C on Nov. 6, 2018.
Is lower back pain a symptom of the flu? Is there a link between back pain and the flu?
We get asked these questions a lot here at the Healthy Back Institute, especially during the winter.
Every year millions of Americans take to bed stricken with a cold or the flu.
The numbers are staggering:(i)
>> 5% to 20% of the U.S. population will get the flu each year — that equates to 16 million to 64 million people
>> As many as 200,000 will be hospitalized due to complications of the flu, including pneumonia
>> Between 3,000 and 49,000 will die
>> More than $10 billion is spent on hospital stays and doctors visits
Dealing with the typical flu symptoms is hard enough, but when back pain strikes at the same time, it can be debilitating.
In this article, I’ll explain a bit about what’s going on — and some easy ways you can get relief right at home.
Table of contents
Also known as influenza, the flu is a nasty virus that is often accompanied by a series of unpleasant symptoms, including full-body aches and pains, nausea, fever, headaches, sore throat, fatigue, dry cough, runny nose and other symptoms of sinusitis, and… back pain.
Many flu sufferers often experience lower back pain and joint pain as part of their flu symptoms.
The back pain itself can run the gamut from an annoying discomfort to extreme, throbbing body aches and tender skin.
Although not all flu sufferers find their symptoms include back pain, those who do will suffer back pain as long as the flu virus persists.
The good news is that as the flu virus works its way through the body, the intensity of the back pain will subside.
Key takeaway: Although not the most common symptom, it’s not unusual to experience back pain when you have the flu.
Why do I have lower back pain when I’m sick with the flu?
The most common question people ask is: Why does the flu cause pain in the back when back pain is not a commonly accepted symptom of influenza?
It’s no secret that aches and pains are common with the flu — it’s why we feel drained and achy constantly.
But prolonged and severe back pain just isn’t considered “typical.”
It’s exactly those same aches and pains associated with the flu that actually cause such excruciating back pain for some.
When you have the flu, you have elevated levels of molecules known as cytokines and chemokines, which are created by cells affected by flu.
Both cytokines and chemokines are pro-inflammatory. That means they encourage inflammation.
When the levels of both of these molecules are elevated higher than usual with influenza, severe back pain is often the result.
But there are other factors, too.
One of the most common symptoms of the flu is a persistent cough.
Severe bouts of coughing could cause you to pull a muscle in your back, which can obviously cause pain.
Additionally, one of the most serious complications of the flu — most common in older adults — is pneumonia, which can cause pain in the middle back.
Key takeaway: The flu causes an inflammatory response in your body, which can cause back pain. But flu-related back pain can also be the result of a pulled muscle due to coughing or pneumonia.
Pre-existing back pain and the flu
While there are plenty of people who experience back pain during bouts of flu, there is another reason that back pain and flu are often linked: You have a history of back pain.
If you have recently injured your back or suffer from chronic back pain, this pain will often resurface as part of flu symptoms.
Again, those aches and pains commonly found in flu sufferers will bring out the back pain again (or make your back pain worse).
When you have the flu, your body also makes something called pyrogens, a specific type of cytokine. Pyrogens are a byproduct of cell breakdown.
These pyrogens help fight the influenza infection by causing a fever, but they also contribute to your aches and pains.
Pyrogens tend to hang out around nerves that transmit pain. This can increase those nerves’ ability to transmit the pain.
So if you’re already prone to back pain, having the flu can make it worse.
Sometimes, however, the link between back pain and flu is simply happenstance.
The flu is a very common virus and many people suffer from the flu every single year.
Back pain is also extremely common, with up to 80% of the population expected to experience back pain at some point in their lives.(ii)
With numbers like that, it is very likely that they will overlap on occasion (meaning one is not causing the other, you just, unfortunately, happen to have both at the same time).
Key takeaway: The risk for developing back pain with the flu is higher if you already suffer from back pain. Sometimes, though, having the flu and back pain at the same time is an unlucky coincidence.
Why standard medical treatments often fall short
Many people turn to over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs to find relief from the flu.
These are not necessarily your best line of offense or defense against the flu.
In fact, a recent study found that two potential cardiac risk factors — having an acute respiratory infection, such as a cold or influenza, and using an NSAID — have a combined, greater effect on heart attack risk when both are present.(iii)
Most people are already aware that taking NSAIDs increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. But the new study found that your risk more than doubles if you take an NSAID when you have the flu compared to when no infection is present.
Some people want their doctors to prescribe antibiotics when they have the flu, and some doctors actually still do this, even though antibiotics do nothing to fight a virus.
Over-the-counter flu medications may have a moderate effect on some flu symptoms, but they will do little to address flu-related back pain.
Fortunately, there are natural alternatives that are safer and often more effective.
You can read more about our 11 best natural remedies for colds and flu right here.
Key takeaway: Mainstream medicine’s solutions for flu are often ineffective for back pain and and can create serious health risks.
How to get fast, safe and soothing relief from flu-related back pain
Most mainstream doctors don’t usually recognize there is a connection between the flu and back pain, so they don’t understand how to treat it.
While the pain will usually decrease as you heal from the influenza infection, there are things you can do to minimize your back pain while you rest and recuperate.
Here are two products that can help ease the discomfort of flu-related back pain:
1. Pain creams
Most pain-relief creams on the market work by “distracting” you from your pain.
Many also contain dangerous ingredients, particularly methyl salicylate, which can be deadly if consumed orally, especially by small children. It can also be toxic when applied topically to your skin.
2. Far infrared heating pads
Far-infrared heating pads use jade stones to create heat that warms beyond the surface of the skin. The warmth actually penetrates 1.5 inches deeper than traditional heating pads — and warms you from the inside out.
Final thoughts and key takeaways
If you’re suffering from the flu right now, I urge you to check out these natural flu remedies that can help you recuperate more quickly.
The flu is no joke — it can make you miserable. And adding back pain to your list of symptoms can make you feel even worse.
Here’s what I want you to take away from this article:
Key takeaway #1: Although you won’t find lower back pain listed on most lists of flu symptoms, it’s actually pretty common.
Key takeaway #2: Several factors can contribute to flu-related back pain. These include inflammatory responses, pulled muscles from coughing and complications such as pneumonia.
Key takeaway #3: People with pre-existing back pain conditions are more likely to have a recurrence if they get the flu.
Key takeaway #4: Mainstream medicine’s pain relievers and over-the-counter flu medications do little to alleviate back pain, and some have serious side effects.
Key takeaway #5: Topical analgesics with natural ingredients and a far-infrared heating pad are the options I recommend for back pain relief while recovering from the flu.
Editor’s note: This article has been reviewed by a member of our medical advisory board. The content provided is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult with your physician if you have any questions about your health.
i “What Are Your Odds of Getting the Flu?” WebMD (webmd,com) Acc Oct. 9, 2018.
ii Rubin Dl. “Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Spine Pain.” Neurol Clin. 2007; May;25(2):353-71.
iii Yao-Chun Wen et al. Infectious Diseases Society of America. “Common pain relievers may increase heart attack risk during respiratory infections.” Journal of Infectious Diseases, February 2017