When Should I Be Worried About My Back Spasms?


Back spasms aren’t usually a serious problem. But when could they be?

According to a National Institute of Health survey, 8.2% of U.S. adults report chronic, severe back pain. Among the many causes of the pain, back spasms can be a common contributor to lower spine problems.

Back spasms occur due to damage to or overuse of the muscles, ligaments, and tendons of the spine, especially the lower spine, and they often center in the soft tissues of the back. For some, the spasms last a few minutes and go away. For others, the spasms can be persistent and make daily movement extremely difficult. So, when are back spasms a serious problem? And what should you do about them? Read on to find out.

What do back spasms feel like?

A sudden, involuntary cramp, contraction, or twinge in your back is the most common sign of a back spasm. Your back may feel tight and stiff as if there is a knot in your back. The spasms may pass in a few minutes, or come and go persistently over a period of days or weeks, making it painful to move and go about your daily routine.

What causes muscle spasms in the back? 

The most common cause of a muscle spasm is overexertion or trauma, such as from lifting a heavy object or a sporting injury. The muscles seize up to protect themselves from further injury. However, back spasms can also be attributed to an anatomical problem within the spinal cord, including a herniated disc or spinal stenosis. In addition, not getting enough water dehydrates the muscles, which can lead to muscle cramps.

Back spasms may also be related to an underlying condition, ranging from kidney stones or gallstones to ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritis that affects the joints in the spine.

Treatment options for back spasms 

Conservative, at-home treatment can usually cure back spasms. Methods to try include:

Rest. Rest is the first line of therapy for back spasms. Avoid activities that aggravate or strain the back. Lie on your back in bed with your upper body positioned at a slight incline; place a pillow under your knees. Or, recline in a recliner with your legs supported and knees slightly bent.

Hot/cold therapy. Switching from hot to cold therapy can take care of the pain and inflammation. Apply a heating pad or ice pack on your back, but only do so for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Take a break for an hour before doing another round of hot or cold therapy.

Medications. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin, can reduce the pain. Tylenol can relieve the pain, but not the inflammation. Topical creams containing lidocaine are another option. For intense pain, muscle relaxers may be prescribed. However, such medications should only be used for a short time.

Physical therapy/exercise. If the spasms persist, see a physical therapist. They can show you exercises focused on strengthening the core muscles, which can help reduce the incidents of back spasms. Stretching exercises can unlock constricted back muscles, as well. Poor posture can also be the cause of the spasms. A physical therapist can help improve your posture so your spine isn’t stressed. You can also massage your back when it feels tight. Walking is a great way to help relieve back spasms, but be sure to walk on level ground.

When to see a doctor for back spasms

If back spasms continue for two weeks, see a doctor. The spasms may be related to a spinal abnormality or medical issue, such as gallstones or dehydration. Imaging and blood tests can determine if there is another condition besides a back strain causing the spasms.

If you suspect the spasms are due to an injury or if the pain radiates to another part of your body, see your doctor. 

If the spasms are accompanied by these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately:

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Weakness or loss of sensation in the arms or legs
  • Numbness along one side of the body
  • Loss of balance or coordination

Get back into life

As a leading sports medicine center, New York Bone & Joint Specialists has taken care of many patients with back pain. If your pain is due to spasms, we can find out what’s causing it and offer treatment options to get you back to your normal activities with no pain. Contact us today for a consultation.

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