Back spasms are unusual, involuntary and sometimes prolonged contractions of a muscle in the back. Back spasms can occur in any muscle in the back, but most often occur in the lower back. There is a high concentration of nerve endings in that region, so spasms occurring there are especially painful and can sometimes be debilitating for weeks. Two thirds of Americans experience back pain in their lives, but not all of those patients have muscle spasms.
It is believed that these muscle contractions can happen to protect another part of the back from further injury. For instance, if there is an injury in the region of the spine, such as a sprained ligament, the muscle can spasm and, because of the pain, immobilize that area of the back. This keeps the person from moving and therefore keeps the injury from further tearing. However, there are many different internal reasons for a back spasm such as tetanus, arthritis or even a tumor.
Some of the examples of when the muscle spasms are packing, lifting and moving boxes or poor desk ergonomics where bending and twisting occurs regularly. This repetitive motion and overuse of the spine can weaken or strain muscles that then spasm. Spasms are the most common athletic injury. Slouching while sitting or standing can also weaken the back muscles or put undue strain on the spine. Chronic ailments in patients with arthritis in the spine, or skeletal irregularities such as Lordosis (or swayback) often experience back spasms for the same reason – the muscles are working extra hard keep the spine safe and stable.
Reducing pressure on the back can ease the pain of a spasm. Most people find lying on their side with their knees pulled closer to the chest feels more comfortable than sitting and some believe that deep breathing can bring oxygen to the area to help relax the muscle.
In trying to find the cause of a spasm, a doctor will make a physical examination and ask for the patient’s health history. This exam can illuminate the reason for the spasm and if it is a regular reason for the spasm, or if there is something else causing the pain.
For spasms occurring from acute pain, such as back strain or sprain, treatment of spasms starts with reducing any inflammation and getting rid of pain. Icing the back at the area of discomfort, compression using an elastic bandage and resting the area is one of the first steps. Anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help reduce the inflammation and muscle relaxants can help to reduce the pain. Some believe muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories can slow recovery, so a patient should speak with their health care provider before proceeding with any medication. Chiropractic care or spinal manipulation is also often prescribed.
While the injury is causing pain, movement should be avoided. After inflammation has been reduced then normal activity can be resumed. Recurrence of back pain is high, so a patient should be fully recovered before resuming any intensive exercise routine. Keeping weight down and strengthening both the stomach and back muscles are important things to keep in mind. Overloading the spine with extra weight of the lack of muscle tone in the stomach, back and legs is thought to increase the possibility of the injuries that can lead to muscle spasms.