Is It a Pulled Muscle in Your Back or Something Worse?
Author: Dr. Hamid Abbasi
DATE: 22 Jul 2019
Could the back pain you’re suddenly feeling be a pulled muscle? Or could it be something worse?
You’re out for a morning run and stop to tie your shoe. When you bend forward, you feel a sudden sharp pain in your lower back. Chances are good that you’ve pulled a back muscle.
In most cases, back pain in the lower back is caused by overstressing the soft tissues that support the lower spine. These muscles and ligaments support the body’s weight and hold the body upright. When they are pushed too far, the result can be a muscle strain or what we commonly call a pulled muscle. You feel it as a sharp, sudden muscle pain or spasm. Depending on the severity of the injury, pain from a pulled muscle can be mild or it can be severe.
Symptoms of a Pulled Back Muscle
If you have pulled a muscle in your back, you will probably feel it as a sudden sharp pain when you lift, bend, or twist. The pain can range from mildly irritating to intense and debilitating depending on how badly the muscle is strained.
If your muscle strain is mild or moderate, the pain usually goes away within a couple of weeks. Severe strains can take a couple of months or more to heal. The pain is usually at its worst for the first few hours or days. After that, less intense pain may continue for another week or two until your muscles heal.
If the pain is contained in your lower back, buttocks, or hips, it is most likely a pulled muscle. You may also have some bruising, swelling, stiffness, or limited movement in the affected area. It’s important to identify your symptoms because, if they don’t fit the classic description of a pulled muscle, you may have a different more serious problem. For example, if the pain feels hot or tingly, it may be caused by an inflamed nerve root. Pain that radiates down your legs and into your calves and feet is usually associated with sciatica, often the result of a herniated disc, and not a pulled muscle.
What Causes a Pulled Muscle in Your Back?
You can end up with a pulled back muscle for any number of reasons. It could have happened suddenly from an injury. Or it may have developed gradually over time because of repetitive movements or overuse—such as lifting, exercising, or sitting hunched over for long periods—that overstressed your back muscles.
Even poor posture can contribute to a pulled back muscle because slouching puts an added strain on the spine and the muscles that support it. Carrying excessive body weight is a culprit, too. Being overweight forces the back muscles to work harder than they should to support the extra load. That’s why people who are overweight or pregnant are more likely to have achy backs.
Other common causes of a pulled back muscle include:
- using poor technique when lifting a heavy object from the ground or lowering it from overhead especially if you twist while you do it.
- performing a forceful repetitive motion, such as that required by playing golf or other sports or perhaps swinging a hammer.
- failing to use good form while exercising.
- starting a new exercise routine, sport, or job activity that overworks a group of muscles that are not used to the force of the motion required.
- moving in any way that jars the muscles in the lower back, especially if you hit the ground hard or in an awkward position, such as movements that could occur in a fall or car accident.
- leading a sedentary lifestyle, which weakens back muscles.
Treatment for Pulled Back Muscles
Most pulled muscles are fairly straightforward to diagnose and can be treated with ice or heat and over-the-counter pain medication. While your injury heals, it’s best to avoid strenuous activity or heavy lifting.
- an ice pack wrapped in a towel applied for 10 to 20 minutes several times a day to reduce inflammation and ease pain when the injury first occurs.
- heat packs applied several times a day after the first 48 hours to increase circulation and speed healing.
- over-the-counter or prescription pain medications—such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen—to reduce inflammation.
- muscle relaxants, which require a prescription, to help ease painful muscle spasms.
- physical therapy to strengthen muscles and provide better support for the spine and reduce the chance of future injury.
- gentle stretching exercises to increase blood flow to the injury and strengthen the back and abdominal muscles that support the spine.
- massage to reduce muscle tension and pain, increase circulation, and improve range-of-motion.
- a 5- to 10-minute walk a couple of times a day to relieve back stiffness and promote physical activity to avoid future problems.
In most all cases, pain from a pulled back muscle gets better after only a few days. But if it lasts for more than a week or two or the pain is severe, it’s time to call your doctor. If you experience a loss of feeling in your legs or groin, fever, loss of control of your bowels or bladder, or severe abdominal pain, get medical help.
How to Prevent a Pulled Back Muscle
If you’ve ever pulled a muscle in your back, you were probably uncomfortable enough to want to avoid doing it again. Here are some tips on how to prevent a future muscle strain.
Take Frequent Breaks
Don’t sit in the same position for too long. Stand up and stretch or walk around. Sit in a chair that supports your lower back or place a pillow behind your back for more support. Keep your feet on the floor and your knees level with your hips.
When you must lift a heavy object, stand close to it and keep your back straight. Bend your knees, and always lift with your legs. Hold the object close to your body. Never twist your body as you lift.
Keep your floors clear by removing clutter, throw rugs, and other trip hazards. Hold on to handrails on the stairs, and avoid slippery surfaces.
Watch Your Posture
To avoid a pulled muscle in your back, be mindful of your posture when sitting and standing. Proper posture can make a surprisingly big difference to your back. Stand straight with your shoulders pulled back and stomach tucked in. If you sit for long stretches of time, walk around periodically. If you must stand for a long time, shift your weight every so often and bend your knees to take pressure off your spine, maintain flexibility, and encourage blood circulation.
Contact Inspired Spine
If you’re not sure what’s causing your back pain, contact the spine specialists at Inspired Spine. We are experts in diagnosing and treating spine conditions, and we’re here to help you.