Muscle Spasms are a Leading Cause of Back Pain But NOT the Primary Cause

Illustration showing muscles in the spineBack pain sometimes strikes without warning. One minute you’re bending over or lifting something heavy; the next minute you’re unable to move. Sudden onset of muscle spasm in the low back is surprisingly common. In fact, approximately eight out of 10 adults will experience it at some point during their lives.

Generally speaking, the cause of back pain and spasm can be attributed to overuse, an accident or a sports injury. But more often than not, the root cause of muscle spasm is a consequence of a seemingly trivial injury to a structure within the lumbar spine. One thing, however, is clear: if you’ve had one or more episodes of muscle spasm in the low back, chances are it will happen again.

The muscles in the low back work in concert with the abdominal musculature. Without them, extension and lateral movement of the spinal column would be impossible. Back muscles also add stability by keeping the spine erect and maintaining balance. That balance can be compromised when the muscles are in spasm as a secondary response to even a slightly injured lumbar joint or disc. 

What are muscle spasms?
Muscle spasms are involuntary, spontaneous contractions of a muscle. Although “back attacks” seem to occur out of the blue, the movement that triggers the incident is generally preceded by a series of small strains to the structures of the spine that develops slowly, over time. Once injured, inflammation sets in. This, in turn, sensitizes the nerves, causing the muscle/s to contract and spasm.

Disc Disorders and Muscle Spasms
Conditions, such as degenerative disc disease or herniated disc, may cause an acute episode of low back pain. A disc may herniate or bulge and compress a nearby spinal nerve root causing irritation and inflammation. The body attempts to immobilize the affected area to stop pain by tightening the surrounding musculature and as a result, painful muscle spasms occur.

Muscles can become too tight due to lack of exercise, too much exercise, structural imbalances, dehydration and electrolyte loss, or any combination thereof. In contrast, some muscle groups are too weak. When muscular imbalances become chronic aberrant forces are transmitted to the spine. Consequently, one movement outside of the norm can trigger an injury to a spinal joint, ligament, or disc resulting in spasm and back pain. Because these structures are already “primed,” the event that triggers the spasm is nothing more than the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Muscle spasm in the low back is exceedingly painful and often debilitating over the short-term. Here are several remedies that can help you get moving again.

Treatment for Back Spasm

  • First 48 to 72 hours: Apply ice for 20 minutes; reapply every two hours while lying on your back.  Always use an ice pack – never apply ice directly to the skin.
  • After 72 hours: Apply moist heat. A heating pad is ideal. Failing that, you may find relief by soaking in a tub of hot water.
  • Whereas ice reduces inflammation, heat increases blood flow to the area and relaxes tight muscles and irritated nerves.
  • Elevating your legs takes pressure off the spine and may also help relieve pain.

Aspirin or ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. Consult with your physician or healthcare provider regarding the medication and dosing regimen most suitable for your condition. With low back muscle spasm, combination therapies (ie, rest, ice/heat and medication) generally yield better results than one therapy alone.    

Back Spasm Prevention 
Once the back spasm episode has passed, and you’ve allowed enough time for the inflammation to subside, start focusing on what you can do to prevent it from happening again.

  • Start stretching: Incorporate stretching exercises into your daily routine. Muscle fibers benefit from gentle stretching—and so will you. Consider taking Pilates or yoga classes; always stretch before physical exercise.
  • Get in shape: If you don’t engage in regular physical activity, now is the time to start. Exercise confers benefits too numerous to mention and too important to ignore. Join a gym. Start playing a sport. The key to any exercise routine is that it be done consistently.
  • Strength training: Always an important part of any exercise regimen, strength training not only builds muscle, it can reduce muscular imbalances. Remember: muscles work in opposition to each other, so be sure to balance out your back strengthening routine with abdominal work.

Make avoiding another episode of muscle spasm in the back a priority. It’s never too late to start increasing your strength and flexibility. Choose activities that you enjoy and commit to doing them on a regular basis.

Updated on: 01/19/16
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