What Is Back Strain? Symptoms, Causes, Treatment of Back Strains

Though it’s commonly played down, a back strain can be an extremely painful and demobilizing injury. Hearing “It’s just a back strain” may not be very comforting when you’re experiencing severe back pain, and while back strain may sound like a minimal back injury, it can cause a great deal of discomfort.

A back strain can result in sleepless nights and back spasms that can cause severe lower back pain. In some cases, back strains can lead to immobility. 

Read on to learn more about back strains and how to alleviate the symptoms of this common condition. 

What is a back strain?

A back strain is a common injury that occurs when the muscles or ligaments in the lower back become stretched or torn. This causes inflammation that may lead to back spasms, eventually causing persistent back pain.  

Understanding what a back strain is can help you better determine how to care for your back in the future. 

What are the symptoms of a back strain?

Symptoms of back strain may range from a mild ache to sudden, debilitating pain often localized in the lower back. The pain of a back strain is likely to be located in the low back and not radiate down your leg (as with sciatica).

Your back may be sore to the touch, pain may come on suddenly, your lower back muscles may spasm, and standing or walking may be more uncomfortable than resting.

A summary of the potential symptoms caused by a back strain:

  • Pain and demobilizing stiffness in the back
  • Pain that spreads to the buttocks and the top of the legs, often in the back of the thigh 
  • Pain that increases when a person bends over, stretches, coughs, or sneezes

What causes a back strain?

“How did this happen to me?” is likely the next question on your mind when you’re suffering from back pain.

Back strains are often the result of a movement or movements that put undue stress on the lower back. Motions like lifting a heavy object, lifting multiple heavy objects, lifting and twisting, a sudden and single twisting motion, or a fall are just some of the movements that can cause back strain.

Most lower back pain episodes are caused by damage to the muscles and/ or ligaments in the lower part of the back. When you suffer from back strain, you may have one or both of the following:

  • A muscle strain is caused when a muscle is overstretched or torn, resulting in damage caused to the muscle fibers (also called a pulled muscle).
  • A lumbar sprain is caused when ligaments – the tough fibrous tissues connecting the muscles to the bones and joints — are stretched too far or torn.

Strain and sprain are often used interchangeably, since the treatment and prognosis for both of these are the same. So, one is not worse than the other, although the amount of pain you’re experiencing may make you think that what you have is indeed the more severe of the two. 

Especially since you cannot see inside your back, your imagination may conclude that you have something much worse than a back strain or sprain. Patients experiencing pain can often jump to dramatic conclusions and envision difficult treatments ahead.

Fortunately, many simple treatments and lifestyle changes may help.

Lower Back Strain

A lower back strain is an injury that develops when a muscle that supports the lumbar vertebrae is stretched or torn. 

The muscles in the lower back are more susceptible to strains than the other regions of the spine. This is because the lower back supports the entire weight of the upper body. Additionally, the lumbar spine is more flexible than the middle or upper spine, contributing to your ability to bend, twist, and move. 

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You may be more likely to develop a lower back strain if you have a weak back, weak abdominal muscles, tight hamstrings, an extreme curve in the lower back, or a pelvis that naturally tilts forward. With this injury, many patients experience sudden pain in the lower back, along with lower back spasms. 

To protect your lower back against strains, focus on strengthening your core, practicing good posture, and avoiding heavy lifting. 

How can a back strain be treated?

With a mixture of painkillers and avoiding strenuous activities, many people can manage back pain and the sharp pain flare-ups that can make a back strain almost unbearable. 

However, you may still experience lower levels of pain, or pain flare-ups further down the line. This may last for weeks or even months, depending on how severe the strain was. 

To alleviate this pain, self-care is a must to help those stretched or torn muscles and ligaments heal fully. The average recovery time for a back strain is around three to four weeks, but this can vary depending on a person’s health, age, and general fitness level. 

To help speed up this recovery, we recommended the following at-home treatment:

  • Use an ice pack on your back to ease pain and reduce swelling as soon as the strain occurs. You can do this for 20 to 30 minutes and repeat every 3 to 4 hours until the pain decreases.
  • After 3 to 4 days, if you’re still experiencing pain, you may also use a heat pack or take a hot bath. This is only advised once the swelling has gone down. 
  • Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as Advil, Aleve, or Motrin. However, it’s important to use these drugs sparingly, as there may be some side effects involved.
  • Try physical therapy to stay active and regain strength in your back. This can maintain muscle tone and help build your abdominal and lower back muscles.
  • Avoid bed rest and try to stick to a normal sleeping pattern. Lying or sitting down for long periods reduces blood circulation in your back, slowing the healing process.
  • Do not turn down medical support, your doctor or physical therapist is a trained professional. Heed their advice, even if staying in bed seems like the easier option.

How to avoid back strains in the future?

There are several simple measures a person can take to help prevent back strains in the future. 

  • Exercise your back muscles and stretch them regularly. Poor fitness and physical conditioning are some of the main causes of back strains.
  • Although exercise is highly recommended, know your limits. If you’ve been exercising regularly, or stepping up your workout plan and suddenly feel pain in your back, then take a few days off and rest.
  • If you feel any pain in your back during an activity, immediately stop. Do not try to persevere as this could stretch or tear the muscles or ligaments further.
  • Focus on your sleeping positions and avoid lying on your stomach. If it helps, you can also place a pillow beneath your legs for support. 
  • Always bend at the knees when lifting heavy objects.
  • Maintain a healthy diet to try and keep your weight at a healthy level. 
  • Focus on your posture and avoid slouching or hunching while working. 

We hope this article has helped to answer any questions you may have had about back strains and how to prevent such issues in the future.