- People are reporting back pain as a symptom of the Omicron variant.
- Back pain is caused by a combination of bad posture/unusual positioning due to fatigue or coughing and viral inflammation.
- The best treatment for back and joint pain is anti-inflammatory medications and gentle stretching.
Many of us are aware of the hallmark signs of COVID-19: fever, fatigue, and loss of sense of smell and taste. With the appearance of the Omicron variant, those symptoms shifted slightly to include a runny nose and even a sore throat. But people are reporting the rise of another sign: back pain.
Omicron, which is now the dominant COVID-19 variant, appears in slightly different ways from Delta or the original strain, and many note that back and joint pain seems to be one of them.
Lifestyle Changes May Be Behind Back Pain
Colin Haines, MD, FACS, a spine surgeon at the Virginia Spine Institute, told Verywell via email that the pandemic has caused an uptick in back pain. Anecdotally, Omicron seems to be causing the highest occurrence of back pain yet.
“The COVID pandemic has resulted in an increase in back pain overall,” Haines told Verywell. “This is largely due to poor ergonomics from learning and working from home with staring at screens and cell phones with a hunched posture. Also, we’re not as active as we used to be since we’re living in our houses more than ever before.”
Haines says that in addition to bad posture, many people are experiencing pain due to poor postural alignment.
“In order for the back to function properly, all core muscles must work perfectly together and when they don’t, it can result in pain,” Haines said. “Any muscle ache or imbalance is likely to lead to back pain—and it seems we are seeing this with Omicron.”
Thomas McNally, MD, medical director of the Spine Center at the Chicago Center for Orthopedics and Robotic-Assisted Surgery at Weiss Hospital, agrees.
“People were made to walk around,” McNally told Verywell. “When we don’t walk around, if we spend a lot more time in bed, we’re more prone to achy backs.”
Much of the back and neck pain that occurs during an Omicron infection may, in fact, be related to an increased amount of sleep due to fatigue, sleeping in unfamiliar positions to accommodate coughing, or otherwise putting the body in uncomfortable positions.
Inflammation Is Likely a Culprit, Too
Beyond our now more sedentary lifestyle, the inflammatory nature of COVID-19 is the primary culprit for back and joint pain, according to Haines.
“Viral infections can cause inflammation which can wreak havoc on our muscles and joints,” Haines said.
While prior variants of COVID-19 caused significant inflammation in the lungs, inflammation can occur in any part of the body, according to McNally. When that inflammation settles in the muscles and joints of the back, pain can occur.
McNally says that while back pain may seem like an inconvenient but minor symptom, it can be a warning sign for a greater problem if it persists for more than a few days, whether COVID-19 related or not.
“A sustained high fever could be an infection in the spine,” McNally said. The fever could likely be part of the COVID-19 infection, but close monitoring is still necessary.
McNally says that other red flags would be loss of bladder or bowel function or numbness in the legs. If any of these symptoms occur, you should seek care as soon as possible.
What This Means For You
If you’re experiencing back pain, gentle movement is key to keeping the body loose and pain-free. Over-the-counter medications can also be helpful in relieving pain.
How to Treat Back Pain
Since inflammation can be widespread, McNally says that taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory is the best course of action. Ibuprofen has been shown to help alleviate pain and inflammation from a COVID-19 infection with no ill effects.
“Walking around your house can help,” McNally said. “You should wait until you’re asymptomatic before you do any significant exercise, as you don’t want to stress your body out so that it can heal from the infection.”
Using anti-inflammatories and gentle stretching may alleviate the majority of back pain. Once you’re asymptomatic, easy exercise should help clear back and joint pain for good.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.