If you’re suffering from back muscle pain or spasm, you’re not alone. Myalgia, or sore muscles, is one of the most common types of back pain.
Pain often goes hand-in-hand with muscle spasms in the back. The involuntary cramping or tightening of the back muscle fibers can be really irritating and it can even make it difficult to move.
When you’re dealing with a back muscle injury or chronic back muscle pain, it can be tempting to curl up on a couch or in bed and wait for relief. But this can actually make the problem worse since your muscles will weaken and eventually waste away (atrophy) if they are not used. And this happens surprisingly fast.
What Causes Pain and Muscle Spasms in the Back?
For that reason, it’s very important that you figure out what’s causing your back muscle spasm or pain and then take action to relieve them. In the following article, we take a look at what might be causing muscle pain and spasms in your back and lay out some things you can do to help.
1. A Pulled Muscle Could Be to Blame
Whether you call your back injury a pulled muscle, a back strain, or a ruptured back muscle, what you are essentially saying is that you overstretched and/or tore one or several back muscles and/or related tissues. Your body responds to this damage with inflammation, and this, in turn, can cause your back muscles to spasm.
Activities that might leave you at risk of this lower back muscle injury include:
- heavy lifting
- twisting while lifting
If your job or side hustle requires you to do a lot of lifting, you should check out a lower back support belt meant for frequent load bearing and spend some time making sure you’re using your legs to lift rather than your low back.
Get Torn Muscle Pain Relief
If you’re dealing with severe back muscle pain, you may need to rest, but that should be for no more than a day or two (remember our warning about muscle wasting!).
Compression and cold therapy can help bring down swelling and reduce back muscle cramps and pain. And you can eventually pair this with some heat therapy to soothe sore, stiff tissues. This low back support belt (also available in plus sizes) can help with both of these since it can hold a hot/cold gel pack.
Doing hamstring, core, and back muscle strengthening and stretching exercises can help get you feeling back to normal. Such exercises can also help correct imbalances and build strength, which can protect against a recurrence.
You can do this at home or with a physical therapist. A professional may also spend some time working to correct shoddy posture (see next item) and teaching you ways to twist, lift, etc. so that you do not injure or reinjure the back.
Getting a massage or seeing a chiropractor can also help work out a catch on either side of the back or stiffness. Plus this can boost blood flow to the region, kick-starting healing.
The recovery period for a pulled back muscle is typically three to four weeks.
Get Rid of Upper or Lower Back Muscle Spasms
The same things you do to recover from a muscle injury can also help stop it from spasming. But there are also steps you can take that are specifically geared toward relieving a muscle spasm.
For one, you can apply pressure to an inflamed back muscle either via your fingers or a foam pad to help calm the twitching tissue.
You should also be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Muscle spasms can be associated with dehydration and the loss of electrolytes.
Doing strength-building back muscle exercises can fix muscle imbalances in the core or across the body, which works toward long-term relief.
Elevating your legs can ease stress on the back and stop a back spasm. This can be a godsend during acute attacks, though of course, you should limit how much you are resting the back.
2. Bad Posture Can Cause Sore Back Muscles and Neck Pain
Bad posture in its many forms (take this quiz to see how your posture stacks up) may be to blame for your back or neck muscle pain.
An overly rounded upper or lower back can stress the tissues of the spine and over time this can even lead to anatomical problems. Hunching over your phone or slouching at your desk can cause your muscles lose strength and flexibility that are needed to hold the spine in a neutral position.
Correcting any imbalances, strengthening your core and working on the loosening up your hip flexor muscles are key to fixing bad posture. A posture brace that helps hold your shoulders back can help train your body not to slouch. And you can check out this blog post for some quick fixes and tips for better posture.
3. Chronic Stress Can Cause Back Muscle Pain
"Chronic stress can have a very real and very negative impact on your health."
Chronic stress can have a very real and very negative impact on your health, with back pain being just one of the possible symptoms. Long-term stressors can cause your muscles to tighten in a fight or flight response. This causes the blood vessels to constrict, slowing the flow of blood and oxygen to your back muscles. This has a number of negative effects, including:
- Depriving the muscles of energy needed to support the spine
- Allowing biochemical waste to build up in your tissues
- Causing muscle tension, spasm, and pain
Often, the pain and muscle spasms occur in the lumbar spine, though the neck and mid- (thoracic) back may also be affected. Restless sleep and fatigue often go hand-in-hand with chronic stress, further depriving the body of what it needs.
Treatment for back muscle spasms and pain stemming from chronic stress involves addressing the underlying problem. This will require some serious self-evaluation about what’s causing your stress and how you can reduce and manage it. This might involve:
- Asking for help
- Saying no
- Making time for your self
- Tackling problems rather than kicking the can down the road
- Making healthier lifestyle choices (in terms of sleep, diet, exercise and social interaction)
While taking an honest review of your life and making changes to give you some breathing room is not an easy process, it can make a huge difference in your overall well-being.
4. Tight Hamstrings May Be to Blame for Muscle Pain in the Back
"Tight hamstrings are a surprisingly common cause of lower back muscle pain."
If your hamstrings are tight, it can limit the motion of your pelvis and force your lower back to take on more of the exertion involved in the movement. This fairly constant source of stress can leave your low back sore and spasm-prone.
And when you’re sitting, your hamstrings are deactivated, making them less responsive when you do put them to use and causing them to lose strength, length, and flexibility. This adds to the problem.
Relieving this strain on the muscles in lower back will require you to spend some time at home working to improve the flexibility of these muscles at the backs of your thighs as well as the hips. This means carving out time to stretch at least five times a day. Some common stretches include:
- Seated hamstring stretch: Sit on the floor with one leg bent out of the way and the other leg extended in front of you. Lean forward from the hips until you feel a stretch at the bottom of the thigh. Hold the pose for around 30 seconds before relaxing and repeating for the other leg.
- Standing hamstring stretch: Stand with the leg you plan on stretching slightly in front of your other leg. Slightly bend your back knee and hinge forward from the hips until you feel a stretch in the front, straight leg. For balance, you can put your hands on the thigh of your bent leg. Hold the pose for 30 seconds then release and switch legs. For a deeper stretch, you can place the leg you are stretching on the seat of a chair.
- Lying hamstring stretch: Lay flat on your back (you can stick a rolled towel under the small of your back if you have any lower back pain), bend the knee you plan on stretching and grab the back of your thigh. Use your hands to pull the leg toward you, keeping the knee bent at around a 20-degree angle, until you feel a stretch in the hamstring. Hold for around 30 seconds. You can also use a band or towel around the foot to pull the leg back if you cannot reach your leg.
5. Back Muscle Spasms May be a Symptom of Other Spinal Problems
If your back muscles hurt, this may be a symptom of other problems with the spine such as facet joint arthropathy, degenerative disc disease, a herniated disc or a pinched nerve. Such problems can inflame surrounding tissues and cause back muscles to spasm protectively.
While general treatment practices like resting the back, wearing a back support brace or applying ice and/or heat to the aching area of the back can ease discomfort, you will need to treat the underlying problem to get lasting relief.
6. Myofascial Pain Syndrome Can Cause Back Muscles to Ache
Myofascial pain syndrome is a chronic condition affecting the connective fascia tissue that covers a muscle or group of muscles. This differs from normal muscle tension in that the ache feels like it is deep within the muscle and it's persistent. You might feel tender knots (trigger points) in the tissues of your low, mid or upper back, and your symptoms may even disrupt your sleep.
This condition is associated with repeated contraction of a muscle. This might occur with certain jobs or hobbies, or it might be caused by stress-related tension in the muscles.
Another instance where you might develop myofascial pain is if you begin using a muscle you haven’t used in a while because you injured that area of the body or had a stroke.
Relieving these myofascial-related muscle pain symptoms will likely involve some combination of the following:
- Physical therapy (including training on better posture)
- Relaxation techniques
- Heat therapy
- Ultrasound therapy
- Trigger point injection
- Pain medications
There is some evidence that myofascial pain syndrome can develop into fibromyalgia, another chronic condition where a person’s brain becomes more sensitive to pain signals. This can cause widespread musculoskeletal pain, among other issues.
Do Something about Your Lower Back and Neck Muscle Pain
There is no reason to let back pain or spasms keep you from doing the things you love. The sooner you determine what the problem is (don’t rely on self-diagnosis—see a professional for that), the faster you can get on the road to recovery.