How to find relief from back spasms
Back spasms are generally the result of a small tendon or ligament strain. The reason your muscle spasms is to protect the irritated structure. It can feel like a sudden tightness or contraction that can affect your movement.
“It’s your body’s way of trying to protect your tendons, discs, and ligaments from more damage,” says David Hanscom, MD, a retired orthopedic spine surgeon in Oakland, California.
The pain can come on quickly and may be triggered by lifting something heavy or after a particularly strenuous sneeze. However, one of the most common causes is an injury from sports such as golf, gymnastics, and soccer. This is because they require repeated motions that can strain your lower back muscles and cause spasms.
But whatever the cause, the pain can be excruciating and interfere with your day-to-day responsibilities. In most cases, you can manage symptoms at home through over-the-counter (OTC) medications and lifestyle measures to help with pain management.
Treating back spasms at home
The good news is that back spasms can resolve fairly quickly. You can help your recovery along by doing the following:
Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE)
RICE is a common method to treat inflammation from injuries such as sprains and spasms. It can reduce fluid buildup around the injury site and help you recover quicker.
It includes the following 4 techniques:
- Rest: Ensuring you get plenty of rest during the first few days after an injury can help speed up your recovery.
- Ice: Applying ice to the injured area can help to reduce inflammation and pain levels.
- Compression: Wrapping the area with a compression bandage can decrease swelling around the injury site.
- Elevation: Keeping the affected area, such as your lower back, elevated above your heart level can be beneficial in preventing fluid buildup. Elevation can help to drain the area.
While it’s important to rest for the first few days of an injury, you should try moving the area as soon as you can to prevent further stiffness.
“We used to recommend bed rest, but we now know people with muscle spasms recover faster when they move around,” says Dr. Hanscom. “It prevents muscle stiffening.”
A 2012 review on lower back pain suggested that staying physically active could help strengthen your muscles and provide relief. The review also explained how limiting movement due to pain could make it even harder to cope in the long run.
Try taking several 5 to 10-minute walks throughout the day. Flat surfaces will be less painful than hills or stairs. As the pain decreases, you can work up to longer and more challenging walks.
Applying heat to your back can help relieve spasms. “This is because it causes blood vessels to dilate, pumping more oxygen and nutrients to the injured area,” says Mara Vucich, DO, a physiatrist at the Maryland Spine Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Try placing a heating pad against the affected area or taking a hot shower to help ease any muscle tension.
Taking over-the-counter pain relief
Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are available OTC and can help with pain from back spasms.
Common examples include:
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Trying spinal manipulation
This treatment involves moving the joints of your spine beyond their usual range of motion to relieve pressure and ease pain. Spinal manipulation is done by chiropractors, physical therapists, osteopaths, and some massage therapists.
A 2017 review found that spinal manipulation improved pain and function for people with acute lower back pain. “It can improve joint mobility in the spine and back, which can help reduce muscle tightness,” explains Dr. Hanscom.
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Getting a massage
“A soft-tissue massage can help break up some of the tightness around back and spine muscles,” says Dr. Vucich.
When to see a doctor for back spasms
If you find that your pain is not getting any better after trying home remedies, consider speaking with a healthcare professional.
“In some cases, back pain may indicate an underlying health issue, such as a fracture, tumor, or infection. However, it is more common for a relatively normal disc to tear from physical activity or sports,” says Dr. Hanscom. This can cause pain or stiffness that triggers spasms.
A healthcare professional can assess the situation with imaging tests such as X-rays or an MRI.
They might also recommend a prescription pain medication. Common options include:
- Muscle relaxants: These medications decrease stiffness and tension by acting on areas of the central nervous system, such as your spine. Since muscle relaxants can be habit-forming and cause drowsiness, they’re only recommended for short periods and only in certain situations, such as before bed. A common example is methocarbamol (Robaxin), which tends to be less sedating than other muscle relaxants.
- Steroid injections: If your back pain is accompanied by sciatica, a doctor may inject a steroid into your spine to relieve inflammation. This can provide short-term relief while you try other strategies, such as physical therapy, to relieve pain.
How to prevent future back spasms
“The best way to reduce your risk of another painful episode is to stay active,” says Dr. Hanscom. He recommends both aerobic exercise (such as walking, jogging, and swimming) and strength training. “The stronger your core muscles are, the less likely they are to spasm,” he explains.
Dr. Hanscom also recommends yoga and tai chi, both of which are good for back pain. At home, you can try knee-to-chest stretches, planks, and hip bridges.
If you are lifting anything heavy, ensure you maintain proper form. Keep your knees bent and tighten your abdominal muscles rather than just reaching your arms out.
Back spasms can be extremely painful and affect your day-to-day life. However, home remedies can help you to find relief quickly. This includes applying ice to the affected area or wrapping it in compression bandages to reduce inflammation and fluid buildup. It can also be helpful to take OTC pain relief.
If your pain levels do not decrease after trying home remedies, consider speaking with a healthcare professional. They can help identify if an underlying health condition, such as an infection, is causing your symptoms.
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- Back spasm: Care instructions. (2022). https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=abr9935
- Dahm KT, et al. (2010). Advice to rest in bed versus advice to stay active for acute low-back pain and sciatica. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20556780/
- Hanscom D. (2021). Personal interview.
- Low back pain: Why movement is so important for back pain. (2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK284944/
- Muscle relaxants. (2023). https://patient.info/bones-joints-muscles/muscle-relaxants
- Paige NM, et al. (2017). Association of spinal manipulative therapy with clinical benefit and harm for acute low back pain: Systematic review and meta-analysis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28399251/
- Van den Bekerom MPJ, et al. (2012). What Is the evidence for rest, ice, compression, and elevation therapy in the treatment of ankle sprains in adults? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3396304/
- Vucich M. (2021). Personal interview.