What Causes Back Spasms?

Pain caused by back spasms is severe—even debilitating—but knowing how to treat it at home can provide immediate relief and may prevent future spasms.

back spasms

You'll know when back spasms hit you; the pain can be sudden and even intense.

c Godfer | Dreamstime.com

You’ll know it when it happens. You might be doing something physically challenging, like playing a sport or lifting a heavy object. Or you might be doing something completely routine, like bending over to tie a shoe. In either case, it’s a sharp, sudden pain triggered by an involuntary muscle contraction, often in the lower back. It’s a muscle spasm that can be so painful you may not be able to move. Knowing the cause of back spasms is important, but the immediate objective is to do something about the pain.

Immediate Relief from Back Spasms

The first thing to do is get into a position that’s less painful. Lying on a firm surface, either on your back or side, with a pillow between yours knees may take the edge off during the day and while you’re trying to sleep at night.

Don’t stay completely immobile. Limited, mild movement is better than total bed rest. Once the pain becomes tolerable, try walking slowly for a few minutes several times a day.

Apply an ice pack for 15 to 20 minutes, three to four times a day for the first 48 to 72 hours. The cold application dulls the pain and may reduce inflammation. If that doesn’t work, use moist heat to increase circulation and make you more comfortable, or alternate ice and heat applications.

Aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) can help with pain. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are meant to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. And acetaminophen does address inflammation. (See also our post “Painkillers: A Primer on Effective—and Safe—Choices.”)

If Spasms Continue

If the spasms continue, get in touch with your doctor. He or she may want you to come in for a visit or prescribe one of several muscle relaxants, such as trade names Flexiril, Robaxin, or Soma. There are side effects with every medication, so ask before taking one—prescription or over-the-counter.

Spinal manipulation (think osteopath or chiropractor) is one of several options that can provide mild-to-moderate relief from low-back pain (including back spasms), according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Spinal manipulation appears to work as well as conventional treatments such as applying heat, using a firm mattress, and taking pain-relieving medications.

What Causes Back Spasms?

There is no single mechanism that accounts for back spasms, but back strains—muscle/tendon/ligament tears—are the most common cause. A more serious cause is a bulging disc that presses against a nerve, causing the surrounding muscles to involuntarily contract.

Skeletal irregularities such as scoliosis can cause pain anywhere in the back. The lower back is one of the most frequent areas affected by osteoarthritis.

Weak abdominal muscles, tight hamstrings, and weak lower back muscles make anyone more likely to have a back spasm than a person who is stronger and more flexible.

Preventing Back Spasms

Once you have recovered, avoid sitting in one position for long periods of time. Get up and stretch every 20 to 25 minutes. Before you return to normal daily activities, slowly and carefully execute each movement required during a normal day before doing them in real time situations. Use a lower back support to remind you sit and stand straight so that you evenly distribute pressure on the muscles of the lower back.

When lifting heavy objects, keep your back as straight as possible and use your legs. Do not bend at the waist. Avoid slouching when sitting.

If you’re overweight, losing a few pounds will relieve stress on the muscles prone to spasm. Regular physical activity that includes strengthening exercises will help you move better and more safely. Examples are wall squats, knees to chest, trunk raises, and leg lifts.

With or Without Treatment

With or without treatment, most back problems, including muscle spasms, will subside with time. But if you suffer a debilitating back spasm, you don’t have time. The key is to keep doing the things that will keep spasms from recurring.

Originally published in 2017, this post is regularly updated.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jim Brown, PhD

As a former college professor of health education, Jim Brown brings a unique perspective to health and medical writing. He has authored 14 books on health, medicine, fitness, and sports. … Read More

View all posts by Jim Brown, PhD

Comments Comments Policy
  • No much new reported here, I think. What I’d have appreciated is more info on self-help; aside from ice/heat, resting/moving, popping pills, going to docs, losing weight,… Anyway. it’s also a hard topic but I’d have loved to see new info on it. Thank you.

  • Your ‘no thanks I don’t want relief from pain’ button to refuse your download is a dick move. How about just ‘no thanks’? But you’ve got to be cute-go to Hell.

  • This was of no help at all. I have been dealing with debilitating muscle spasms for almost a year (24/7). This article is antiquated. I’m sure it was written by someone who copied and pasted info that is meaningless in 2019. Medicine has come a long way since some of the recommended drugs that were stated. It’s not a simple visit to a primary care doctor who will refer a patient back home with no relief. The article ends with advertisement for the reader to purchase a book on arthritis; what an insult! Poor Joan seems to be speaking to someone who is not a part of this conversation. Obviously, she did not get any help from the article either. Shame on the University Health News Daily for printing this kind of propaganda. GOD Bless you all.

  • The negativity in these comments is astounding. Seems like quite a lot of self-care was covered. And no problem with a reasonable opt-out button. As fisrt-time back spasm experience, appreciated the info.

  • The only treatment for back pain and degenerative discs and arthritis is injecting rebuilding stem cells .. Stem cells regenerate them
    and build up the crushed discs and degrading bones . This literally removes the pain instantly . This procedure is done worldwide . Sadly some countries are dragging their feet on this. This should be standard treatment as this will lead to less opioid use and strain on health care .

  • Well this article as with all the other articles I have searched does not cover my issue. Back spasms done have to stay that way for hours. I get a true ‘spasm’ it happens, almost floors me, stops me in my tracks thats for sure and then its gone, this happens about once a week at random times, but getting more frequent…. so this and every other article that is dealing with back ache or constant spasms is no help at all. Hmmm

  • My back spasms sound a lot like “Megabite”. I’ve had this problem for the last 20+ years. They are extremely debilitating and incredibly painful. When they get really bad, it’s painful to breathe. Breathing sometimes triggers a massive spasm where I can’t breathe at all until it passes…. Feels like torture. I used to take Soma which worked, but doctors in WA stated refuse to prescribe it for some reason. Would seriously like some kind of help with this problem.

  • This article is not helpful, I have suffered from debilitating lower back pain and back spasms for years, they have happened out of the blue and not from an injury lifting or any other activity, the back spasms were more frequent when I was extremely fit, now I have constant back pain I can no longer keep that up, also it’s all very good saying to get ice and get into a comfortable position, when it happens any movement is impossibly painful, even breathing causes more pain, this is written by someone who hasn’t experienced it themselves so doesn’t have a clue.

  • Well hello all,I just want to say this past Saturday I got a spasm in my back it was so unbelievably painful I couldn’t move left or right I live alone I was flat on my back for 7 to 8 hours how my supposed to get up and get an ice pack when I can’t move I just want to say this past Saturday I got a spasm in my back it was so unbelievably painful I couldn’t move left or right I live alone I was flat on my back for 7 to 8 hours how my supposed to get up and get an ice pack when I can’t move ?

  • So glad to finally discover that others understand the acknowledge the horrific pain that accompanies these severe back spasms. I had one recently after bending over and after several hours flat on my back, was taken by ambulance on a backboard to an ER. Unfortunately, the doctor refused to acknowledge my pain as acute and instead classified it as chronic. He therefore undertreated me with a strong NSAID. He kept wanting me to get up and go home. The pain was too severe. It’s like no one believed me. Still recovering. Such a terrible experience!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Login Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.