Back spasms occur as reflex contractions in the back’s muscles, specifically those in the lower back. Muscle spasm and severe pain can occur due to irritation or injury of the nerves, ligaments or muscles in the back. Most people who suffer from back spasms feel a severe muscle pain and tightening as well as a palpable tension or a knot. In most cases these reflexive muscle contractions will happen right after an injury occurs but sometimes they may not happen for hours or days.
Causes and Symptoms of Back Spasms
Causes and Risk Factors
Most of the time, a back spasm will occur because the muscle is strained or swollen, tender and inflamed. Any force that is strong will be able to tear the tendons and muscles in the lower back. It is commonly caused by certain sports that involve pulling, pushing or sudden twisting motions such as golf, baseball, basketball, football and weight lifting.
Certain people have a higher risk of experiencing back spasms. These risk factors include weak stomach muscles, if the muscles on the spine are weak or inflexible, tight hamstrings, lordosis, back weaknesses (including a tumor, spinal stenosis, disk rupture, spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis and arthritis) or a pelvis which tilts abnormally forward.
The symptoms of back spasms include sudden pain, particularly in the lower back, when pulling, pushing or twisting. Some people who experience back spasms can continue what they are doing but after several hours, this is no longer possible because the bleeding of the muscles will stretch the torn tendons and muscles. In most cases, people experiencing back spasms will be most comfortable lying down with their knees curled in and spine arched.
Treatments for Back Spasms
1. Stopping Activities
Even if you feel that your back spasm isn’t severe, it is important to immediately stop whatever activity caused it. You can rub or massage the area to get relief.
Rest is crucial to help your muscle injury heal more quickly. If muscle injury caused the back spasm you need to rest for two or three days. While resting, be sure to maintain some mobility such as walking slowly and gently. If you do not, your muscles may become stiff or tightened. When moving, however, it is important to avoid bending or twisting your trunk as this will increase the spasms.
3. Cold Compress
When you experience an injury, you may have increased blood flow or swelling which lead to pain. Applying a cold compress can relieve these symptoms the first time you have a spasm, but for future ones, you should try heat before cold. Apply the ice for around 15 minutes every two hours during the first day.
4. Heat Compress
All types of heat can relieve pain, but for best results try using a moist heat. The heat will relax the tensed muscles and you should always do this after applying a cold compress. If you don’t want to go out and buy an electric moist heating pad at your local store, you can try using a warm water bowel or a towel that was soaked in hot water. It can also help to take a warm shower or bath. You should apply the moist heat for around 15 minutes every four hours until your back spasms die down.
It is important to note that some people find that applying heat increases their pain and if this happens to you, stop this method immediately and only use cold compresses.
5. Leg Elevating
Most people who experience back spasms have a very hard time getting comfortable. Certain positions tend to provide more relief than others so here are some ones that may help you, all of which involve elevating your legs:
- Elevate your knees higher than your hip level.
- When you are sitting, try putting your lower legs or feet up on top of a foot stool.
- You can try placing your legs on extra pillows to elevate them.
- Lie down on a firm bed or the flower and rest your lower legs on top of a chair so that your knees are bent 90 degrees.
6. Relaxation Technique
Most people suffering from back spasms find it very difficult to relax but certain techniques can be truly effective in fighting the pain associated with back spasms. When you are able to distract yourself by thinking of something else (or erasing all thought) you will be able to relax and breathe better and this in turn will reduce the tightness of your muscles and decrease your pain. Some great ways to distract your mind including talking to a loved one, watching a TV show, reading and meditation.
7. Mild Exercise
You should never do exercises when your back spasms start but once the cramping becomes minimal and the pain lessons, you can try these exercises.
- If the cramping or discomfort is in your lower back, try walking around with your back straight and lift your knees higher than normal.
- Try gently stretching your back muscles by lifting your arms up over your heads. You should try five to ten counts per repetition and 10 reps, three or four times daily.
- Lie down on the floor with your feet flat on the surface of the floor and your knees bent. Next, carefully pull one knee towards your chest, holding it for 10 seconds before lowering it and repeating with the other leg. You should try to do five to ten reps of this exercise two or three times daily. This exercise can increase the pain for some people and if it does for you, stop immediately.
8. Pain Killers
If the other methods don’t work, you can try taking NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) which are available both over the counter and in prescriptions. You can also try taking muscle relaxers but never drive while on them.
9. Physical Therapy
You can also try visiting a physical therapist or chiropractor. They will use muscle release techniques, ultrasound and heat to reduce the spasms. They will then move on to provide you with safe exercises that can increase your flexibility and strengthen your muscles.
Cortisone injections can give relief for several months and this is especially true when the spasms cause pain in the legs.
When to See a Doctor
You should go to the doctor if:
- You try the self-treatments and are not successful.
- The spasms or pain occur frequently as this may indicate an underlying condition.
- The pain is due to a blow or fall.
- You experience weakness, sweating, abdominal pain, fever, vomiting or nausea.
- Your foot, leg, rectum or groin are numb or painful.
- You do not have control of your bladder or bowels.
- You have unexplained weight loss.
- The pain lasts over two weeks or is intense or constant.
- Your history includes substance abuse, cancer or osteoporosis.