c Godfer | Dreamstime.com
Almost everyone gets back pain at some point. People may say they have a backache or back spasm, or that they threw their back out. These are all descriptions of acute low back pain, back pain that starts suddenly. A muscle spasm is another word for a muscle cramp. It happens when a muscle contracts and can’t relax.
“Muscle spasms are common in the back,” says Dr. Dominic King, an orthopedic physician at the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center. “When you get a muscle spasm in your leg, you call it a charley horse. It may be caused by muscle fatigue or dehydration. Muscle spasms in your back can have more causes. Your back muscles are big muscles that keep you up all day, so they can get stressed and fatigued, but they can also be affected by changes in your spine,” explains Dr. King.
Causes of Back Spasms
The most common cause is a muscle strain from overuse, twisting, or lifting. This type of spasm can be very painful but it only lasts for several minutes, until the muscles relax. After the spasm passes, you may still have other symptoms of back strain like:
- Stabbing or aching pain
- Tightness or soreness
- Pain that gets worse with bending, standing, or walking
- Recurrent back spasms
“Other causes go deeper, like peeling the layers of an onion. Beneath a superficial back muscle strain may be a diseased disc or a pinched nerve. Nerves that leave the spinal cord can get irritated or damaged inside or outside the spine,” explains King.
Your spine is made up of small bones – called vertebrae – stacked one on top of the other. Between the bones are cushions called discs, nerves, and muscle attachments called ligaments. Disks can tear or slip out of place. A damaged disc can put pressure on nerves leaving the spinal cord. “If you have any type of back pain that moves down your buttocks into your leg, called radicular pain, you should call your doctor,” says King:
- Pain radiating into your leg or buttocks is a sign of nerve irritation.
- Pain that includes numbness and tingling may mean nerve injury.
- Pain that causes weakness or loss of bowel or bladder control means a severe injury and requires an emergency visit.
Risk of Back Spasms
Back spasms tend to increase with the wear and tear of aging, but young people are also at risk. “Back pain is an equal opportunity problem. It can affect youngsters or teens who over train or overuse their backs during sports. Middle aged people with jobs that require a lot of standing, lifting, or repetitive back movements frequently get back pain,” says King. Other risk factors include:
- Lack of exercise
- Weak back or core muscles
- Being overweight
- Poor posture or poor lifting technique
- Having a previous back injury
- Having arthritis in your back
What to Do for a Back Spasm
“The best first treatment is moist heat. Moist heat relaxes a cramped muscle and increases blood supply to the muscle. You should apply heat for about 20 minutes. A warm, moist towel works well, or a hot shower. Rest your back until the spasm goes away and then try some gentle stretching. Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever right away may mask your pain and cause you to start using your back muscles too soon,” advises King.
You may have heard that putting an ice on your back can help but Dr. King advises against this home treatment. “Ice can make a sore muscle stiff and slow down blood supply which is important for healing,” says King.
Although you should rest your back during a back spasm, prolonged rest is not recommended. “You don’t want to push through the pain, but once the spasm is gone, you can try sitting up and then standing. Gently turn and bend your back from side to side. If you don’t have pain, try taking a walk. Then, gradually return to normal activity,” says King.
When to Call Your Doctor
A simple back spasm will usually go away with home treatment. You may be left with some back pain or soreness, but most back pain goes away within a few weeks. If you have radiating pain, recurrent back spasms, or severe back pain, call your doctor. Always get help right away if you have weakness of your back or loss of bowel or bladder control. “If managing your back pain is interfering with the rest of your life, it’s time to see the doctor,” says King.
Dominic King, DO, Orthopaedic Surgery, Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center