People with HIV may experience back pain due to increased inflammation, exaggerated immune system responses, nerve damage, co-existing conditions, or antiretroviral treatment.

People with HIV may experience chronic pain due to the virus itself or as a side effect of antiretroviral treatments. Pain may occur due to nerve damage or chronic inflammation.

This may still occur with a low viral load. The back is a common site of HIV-related pain.

This article examines the link between HIV and back pain. It also describes treatment, management, and a person’s outlook.

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A 2017 study of 422 people with HIV in Ethiopia found back pain occurred in 13.3% of cases.

HIV or its medications may also cause nerve damage, which doctors call peripheral neuropathy. This peripheral nerve damage most commonly causes muscle weakness, numbness or tingling, and pain in the hands and feet. However, it can also cause pain in the back.

HIV-related changes in the immune system and increased inflammation may also lead to back pain.

Additionally, HIV can increase the risk of rheumatic diseases, which may cause back pain.

Learn more about HIV.

The type of back pain people experience may depend on the underlying cause of the pain and the severity of the condition.

According to a 2017 study, HIV may cause backache, and lower back pain is common.

Back pain may be a dull, continuous ache or sudden, sharp, shooting pain that may radiate down the leg.

Peripheral neuropathy can cause muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling. Depending on the nerves affected, it may also cause:

  • changes or loss of sensation
  • increased sensitivity to light touches, such as clothing on the skin
  • a lack of coordination
  • worsening pain at night, which may disturb sleep

If a rheumatic condition such as arthritis is causing back pain, the most common site is the lower back. People may also experience swelling and stiffness.

Rheumatic diseases can cause a person to experience fatigue and weakness. Fibromyalgia, a chronic syndrome that can cause widespread body pain, may lead to upper and lower back pain.

According to a 2020 article, HIV may cause changes in the immune system, leading to increased inflammation, hypersensitivity, and pain. Hypersensitivity is an exaggerated response to an antigen, a substance that causes immune responses.

Because HIV weakens the immune system, people with the condition are more likely to develop infections, which may cause back pain. For example, people with HIV may experience herpes-related pain, which can cause lower back pain.

Back pain with HIV may also occur due to peripheral neuropathy, which is damage to nerves outside the spinal cord and brain. Peripheral neuropathy can be a common side effect of antiretroviral therapy. Nerve damage can cause pain, weakness, and loss of sensation.

Another method through which HIV may cause back pain is central sensitization. This occurs due to a change in the central nervous system, resulting in the brain receiving stronger pain signals than usual.

According to the American College of Rheumatology, people with HIV may have joint and muscle problems and rheumatic diseases. It states that around 5% of people with HIV experience pain or inflammation in the soft tissues or joints.

Rheumatic diseases such as fibromyalgia can cause widespread pain, including long-term back pain. Arthritis may also cause back pain, particularly in the lower back.

Treating and managing HIV-related back pain may depend on the exact cause of the pain.

Peripheral neuropathy

Certain treatments and lifestyle changes may help preserve nerve function and promote nerve repair, such as:

Rheumatic conditions

If a rheumatic condition is causing back pain, treatments may include:

  • antiretroviral drugs, which significantly reduce symptoms and issues affecting joints and muscles
  • pain relief and anti-inflammatory medications to reduce pain and swelling
  • immunosuppressant medications
  • physical therapy

Other factors and conditions

Avoiding alcohol may help manage back pain. In people with HIV, alcohol may make people almost three times more likely to experience pain than those who do not consume alcohol.

Treating any chronic co-occurring conditions may also help manage back pain.

Other ways of managing HIV-related back pain may include:

If antiretroviral medication is causing back pain, a doctor may be able to adjust the medication.

Effective treatment with antiretroviral therapy suppresses HIV and means people with the condition can live long and healthy lives.

Certain treatments may help manage HIV-related back pain. According to a 2020 review, highly active antiretroviral therapy reduces the incidence of specific conditions that may result in back pain, such as arthritic and autoimmune conditions.

Glucocorticoids and immunosuppressive drugs may also be effective, as well as preventive measures against infections that may result in chronic pain.

This section answers some common questions about back pain and HIV.

When does HIV back pain start?

People may experience HIV-related pain at any stage of the infection. However, it may become more frequent or severe if HIV progresses.

Back pain may also occur as a side effect of HIV medication, although antiretrovirals may significantly reduce joint and muscle problems.

Where do people feel pain with early HIV?

In the initial stages of HIV, people may experience muscle and body aches and other flu-like symptoms such as fever. People may also have a headache and a sore throat.

What body pains link with HIV?

According to a 2020 article, people with HIV may experience pain affecting one area of the body, or the pain may be widespread and neuropathic or inflammatory-related.

The pain may affect the musculoskeletal system, which includes the muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissues.

The main areas of HIV-related pain may be the back, joints, legs, and head.

HIV may cause back pain due to certain changes in the body that occur with the infection.

Increased inflammation, nerve damage, secondary conditions, or side effects of HIV medications may all cause back pain with HIV.

Antiretrovirals, pain-relief medications, and lifestyle changes may help people manage HIV-related back pain.