What to Do for a Back Spasm

A back spasm is a muscle cramp in your back. It could be just a strained back muscle or it could be part of a more serious back problem. Find out what to do and when to call the doctor.

back spasm

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

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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
  • Smoking
  • 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.



1. Dominic King, DO, Orthopaedic Surgery, Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center

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Chris Iliades, MD

Chris Iliades has an MD degree and 15 years of experience as a freelance writer. Based in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, his byline has appeared regularly on many health and medicine … Read More

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  • 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!

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