Sweating is a natural mechanism that is intended to cool down the body. While it is primarily intended for thermoregulation, at times sweating can become excessive even though there are not temperature-related issues. This can prove to be uncomfortable, inconvenient and even embarrassing. Apart from the odor that may be associated with the excessive perspiration, the sight of sweat also has certain social connotations which can affect daily life in various ways.
Why does the back sweat?
The back sweats for the same reason that sweating occurs elsewhere on the body. However, the back is one of the areas of the body where hyperhidrosis is more likely to be seen. Hyperhidrosis is the medical term for excessive sweating. This should be differentiated from excessive sweating with strenuous physical activity or with heat exposure as these are normal physiological responses to prevent the core body temperature from rising. Excessive sweating may also be seen with certain illness in which case it is referred to as diaphoresis as is the case with fever seen in infections.
Sweat is the fluid secretion produced by two types of glands – eccrine and apocrine glands in the skin. Eccrine sweat glands are present in skin throughout the body surface. It produces the thin secretions laden with water and salts that is typical of the sweat we know. These glands release the sweat directly on the skin surface. The other gland, the apocrine gland, produces a thicker fluid laden with fatty substances. Its secretion is released through hair follicles. Sebaceous glands produce the skin oil (sebum) that also releases through hair follicles. Although sebum may mix with sweat, it is not considered to be sweat and does not have the same functions as sweat.
Causes of Back Sweating
Some people do sweat more quickly and excessively than others. This as well is not considered abnormal provided that there is appropriate stimuli such as heat. In hyperhidrosis the excessive perspiration occurs even in cold weather although the regular stimuli like heat can exacerbate it. When hyperhidrosis occurs on certain areas of the body, this is referred to as focal hyperhidrosis. The back, armpits and chest are among the more commonly affected areas in focal hyperhidrosis.
Perspiration (sweating) is a result of these sweat glands being stimulated by tiny nerve fibers which in turn receive signals from the central nervous system. It can occur in response to psychological, hormonal, infectious and neurological factors as well as with the use of certain medication and the consumption of some substances. Similarly certain lifestyle factors can play a role in excessive sweating even when it is not hot or a person is not overly active.
People who are more active will naturally sweat more, especially if the climate is hot. Clothing also makes a difference. If a person is dressed with heavy clothing that insulates the skin surface then heat generated by the body cannot escape. As a result the body will trigger mechanisms like sweating in an attempt to lower the temperature. Obesity has a similar effect since the fat deposits underneath the skin (subcutaneous fat) acts as a natural insulator.
The involuntary part of the nervous system can elicit a range of different reactions when a person is undergoing psychological stress or strong emotions. The heart beats faster, pupils dilate, blood glucose levels rise and sweat increases. Even when some of these effects are due to hormones, it is nerves that carry stimulatory signals to the glands that secrete hormones. Sweating may therefore be associated with emotions like anxiety, fear, anger and embarrassment.
A number of hormone disorders (endocrine diseases) and hormonal changes can lead to excessive sweating. Hyperthyroidism is one of the common conditions where the thyroid gland becomes overactive and the metabolism increases beyond normal. Sweating may also be seen with an overactive pituitary gland and when diabetics experience a sudden drop in blood glucose levels (hypoglycemic attack). Women undergoing menopause may also experience excessive sweating with hot flashes.
The sweat glands are stimulated by signals carried to it by nerves. If these nerves malfunction it can over-stimulate the sweat glands. Sometimes the problem lies in the temperature regulation centers in the brain that are altered and elicit sweating abnormally or excessively. This may be seen in a range of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, strokes, autonomic neuropath and peripheral neuropathies.
Drugs and Substances
A number of substances can elicit sweating for various reasons. This may include affecting the thermoregulatory centers in the brain, stimulating the part of the nervous system that controls the sweat glands, increasing metabolism and therefore heat generation as well as causing the skin blood vessels to dilate excessively. These effects may be seen with prescription drugs like weight loss medication and diabetes drugs, illicit substances like ecstasy (MDMA) and other substances such as caffeine and alcohol.
- Heart disease
- Certain types of cancers
- Substance withdrawal
Remedies for a Sweaty Back
Focal hyperhidrosis can be difficult to treat when no specific condition or substance can be isolated, and when it has been persisting for years. Sometimes surgery is necessary to sever the nerves to the sweat glands at the affected area but this is usually the last option and only reserved for severe cases. Sometimes simple lifestyle and dietary changes can help to reduce the excessive sweating of the back.
- Try to use thinner and lighter colored clothing. It will allow air to flow through and for the sweat to evaporate as well as reflect some light which can help to reduce heat buildup around the skin.
- Reduce the intake of caffeine and other stimulants and where possible stop it altogether. It can be found in coffee, tea, colas, some energy drinks and even chocolate. Stop smoking as nicotine is also a stimulant.
- Consider changes in diet and lifestyle to help with weight loss. It can also assist with managing diabetes beyond the benefits of using antidiabetic medication as prescribed.
- Learn relaxation techniques for stress management. Coping skills are equally important so as not to become emotional with daily life events that is a common cause of psychological stress these days.
Night sweats may be a different condition associated with certain diseases and should be investigated accordingly.