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

What is back strain?

Commonly played down, a back strain can be an extremely painful and demobilizing injury which could require strong painkillers and possible treatment. 

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 you a great deal of discomfort. A back strain can result in sleepless nights, back spasms that can cause severe lower back pain and in some cases, immobility. 

Many people with back strains are forced to go to the emergency room for relief and they are not to be taken lightly. 

What is a back strain?

It can be reassuring to understand what a back strain actually is and what part of the body is damaged to help understand potential treatment options and how to take care of your back in the future. 

When the muscles or ligaments in the lower back are strained or torn, the area around the muscles will likely become inflamed. That back inflammation leads to back spasms that can cause your severe back pain and immobility.

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 comes on suddenly and strongly, you may have those muscle spasms in your lower back, and you might find standing or walking to be more uncomfortable than resting.

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

  • Pain and demobilizing stiffness in the back
  • Pain which spreads to the buttocks and the top of the legs, often in the back of the thigh. 
  • Pain which 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. 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 (such as with landscaping using large rocks or bricks,) lifting and twisting, a sudden and single twisting motion (like your last golf tee-off of the day,) 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, caused when a muscle is overstretched or torn, resulting in damage caused to the muscle fibers (also called a pulled muscle).
  • A lumbar sprain, 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, there are many simple treatments and lifestyle changes which may help. 

How can a back strain be treated?

With a mixture of painkillers and avoiding strenuous activities a person can manage the pain in their back and significantly reduce the sharp pangs of pain that make a back strain almost unbearable. 

However, a person may still experience lower levels of pain, or flare-up of pain further down the line, lasting 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, ligaments heal fully. The average recovery time of a back strain is around three-to-four weeks but this can of course vary depending on a person’s health, age, or general fitness levels. 

To help speed up this recovery, we recommended the following treatment which you can apply yourself, without medical consultation. 

  • Use an ice pack on your back to ease pain and reduce swelling as soon as the strain occurs. You can do this for 20-30 minutes and repeat every 3-4 hours until the pain decreases.
  • After 3-4 days if you are experiencing pain, you may also use a heat pack but this is only advised once the swelling has gone down. A hot bath is also recommended.
  • Take Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers, examples of these are; Advil, Aleve and Motrin. However, it is important to use these drugs sparingly as there may be some side effects involved.
  • Try physical therapy to keep 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 as lying or sitting down for long periods of time 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, so heed their advice even if staying in bed seems like the easier option.

How to avoid back strains in the future?

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

  • Exercise your back muscles and stretch them regularly as poor fitness and physical conditioning are some of the main causes of back strains.
  • Although exercise is highly recommended it is advised to know your limits. If you have 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 then 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, instead of sleeping on your back, or side. If it helps you could 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.