Back Spasms: Symptoms, Treatment, and More

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
February 2, 2022

Do you feel a sudden tightness in your back or pain in your back muscles in the morning?

Did you overexert yourself at the gym, or could it just be the way you slept?

Sleeping in an awkward way, training too hard at the gym, bending, lifting, or standing can sometimes cause a back spasm. 

Back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the United States; it can occur from both extreme exertion and doing innocuous tasks, and the worst part is your likelihood of experiencing it increases with age.

Almost 65 million Americans have recently experienced back pain, hitting the country with $12 billion a year in health care costs.

Sometimes it may resolve on its own, as long as you take it easy in the meantime, and sometimes, you may need to see a doctor for proper treatment. 

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What are Back Spasms?

If you are having muscle spasms in your back, this is your body’s way of telling you to stop doing a certain activity.

It can manifest as stiffness, lack of motility, and difficulty standing upright.

Back spasms can range in severity from minor discomfort to a more severe pain that inhibits normal back movements.

Frequent or severe back spasms could be a warning that you have a more serious underlying issue, especially if you have been suffering in pain for several weeks, and you should visit a doctor to get examined.

Symptoms of Back Spasms

While back pain can occur anywhere along the spine, it is more commonly felt in the lower back because the lower back supports most of your body’s weight.

You may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Dull, constant ache
  • Sharp, shooting pain
  • Decreased motility especially when bending over
  • Difficulty standing upright
  • Tension or chronic pain in the lower back

If you experience ongoing symptoms, it may be an indication that you have a deeper underlying anatomical problem in your spine.

If spasms keep recurring or if there is ongoing inflammation or instability in your back, you should seek medical attention.

Causes of Back Spasms

A back spasm is your body’s way of warning you to stop doing an activity.

They typically occur because your muscles are trying to protect themselves from muscle strain.

If you injured or strained any of your soft tissues doing physical exercise, over-stretching, or moving your body in an unnatural way, this can cause your back muscles to spasm as a warning not to engage in that same way again.

You may also have thrown out your back, which can bring on a case of back spasms.

Lower back spasms can fall into two categories:

  • Acute lower back spasms: These happen suddenly, usually as a result of jerking your body unnaturally, lifting something heavy, or changing position to something that feels unnatural. They can be felt as an intense, sharp pain and can last for a few days.
  • Chronic lower back spasms: These are recurring spasms usually resulting from a previous back injury and not linked to an immediate reaction to physical activity. Having back spasms for 12 weeks or longer is considered chronic. 

There are several underlying health conditions that can make you more susceptible to back spasms.

These include:

  • Sciatica
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity 
  • Compression fractures to the spine from osteoporosis
  • Cancer involving the spine
  • Spinal cord fracture
  • Ruptured or herniated disk
  • Spina bifida
  • Arthritis
  • Traumatic injuries
  • Spinal curvatures 

Diagnosing Back Spasms

When diagnosing back spasms, your doctor will typically ask for your complete medical history and conduct a physical exam usually to determine any serious health conditions that could be causing the pain.

Your doctor may decide to do further testing to find the best treatment for you.

This may include any of the following:

  • Blood tests: These are not routinely undertaken for diagnosing back pain but they can indicate if you have inflammation, infection, arthritis, and/or cancer.
  • Bone scans: In rare cases, your doctor may request a bone scan. These are imaging tests that can detect if you have a bone disease, infection, or fracture. A tiny amount of radioactive material is injected into your bloodstream and then gathered in the bones, specifically in areas where there is an abnormality, and then an image is created to show your doctor if you have any areas with irregular bone metabolism or unusual blood flow.
  • Discography: This is where a contrast dye is injected into a spinal disc that is suspected to be causing lower back pain. This can be a painful process, as the fluid’s pressure in the disc will reproduce your symptoms. It is done to determine if the disc is the cause of the pain and the dye works to show the damaged areas on CT scans taken following the injection.
  • Electromyography (EMG): EMGs will help your doctor rule out if the back spasms are a result of nerve damage to your muscles. An EMG involves inserting fine needles into your muscles to measure electrical activity transmitted from the brain or spinal cord to a specific part of the body.
  • Computerized tomography (CT): If you have a disc rupture, spinal stenosis, or tumors, a CT scan will capture this which cannot be seen on conventional x-rays.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRIs create a computer-generated image of bony structures and soft tissues. They will inform your doctor if your back spasms are from problems such as an infection, tumor, pressure on a nerve,  inflammation, disc herniation or rupture.
  • X-ray imaging: If your doctor suspects a broken bone or misaligned vertebrae, they may order an x-ray.  

Treating Back Spasms

When it comes to treating back pain, there are several ways you can improve your symptoms.

These include physical therapy, medication, exercise, and at-home remedies. 

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can greatly improve your back pain due to musculoskeletal causes and posture.

A physical therapist can teach you some basic exercises to do at home to increase your flexibility, and strengthen your back and abdominal muscles.

They can show you modifications on these movements to do when you are having pain symptoms so you can still stay active.

Medication

If you are suffering back pain, there are a range of medications you can take, including those that are both over-the-counter or by prescription from your doctor.

They include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These are over-the-counter medications such as Advil, Motrin IB, or Aleve. Do not exceed the recommended dosage. If your symptoms persist, see a doctor and they may prescribe you stronger NSAIDs.
  • Muscle relaxants: These help relax your muscles and thus reduce spasms. They are a prescription medication and should only be taken as directed by your doctor or pharmacist. Muscle relaxants can make you drowsy and dizzy, so talk to your health care provider about any potential side effects you should be aware of. 
  • Topical pain relievers: These come in the forms of creams, salves, ointments, or patches and can relieve muscle pain.
  • Narcotics: Your doctor may prescribe you drugs with opioids, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, briefly treat the pain of severe acute back spasms.

Exercise

There are several stretches you can do at home to help with lower back spasms.

Some of these include:

  • Child’s pose: This is a common yoga pose for helping stretch your spine. Kneel on the ground with your knees apart and stretch your arms above your head with palms down and elbows resting on the floor while bringing your chest down to your thighs. Hold this pose for 30 seconds or longer if needed.
  • Cat-cow pose: Get on all fours on the floor in a table-like position by placing your knees under your hips while your hands are flat on the ground in line with your shoulders. Take a deep breath as you arch your back while extending your head back. Exhale as you round your back and push your chin toward your chest. Repeat this 5-10 times including wiggling your torso or moving your head to get out any kinks in your back.
  • Hip lifts: Lie on your back and bend your knees so your feet are flat on the ground. Place your hands by your sides and gently lift your hips a couple of inches off the ground. Hold the position for 15 seconds and repeat 5–10 times.

At-Home Remedies

  • Drink water and electrolytes: Dehydration can cause muscle spasms, or exacerbate existing spasms. Drink plenty of water and consume electrolytes to lessen back pain. 
  • Use a foam roller: Roll out your muscles with a foam roller. This can help loosen muscle tension or tightness after exercise and alleviate muscle spasms in the back.
  • Cold therapy: Apply an ice pack wrapped in a sheath or towel to the area of your back that is in pain. Leave it there for 15-20 minutes to reduce inflammation.
  • Heat therapy: Apply a heat pack or heat pad to the painful area on your back to increase blood flow and soothe pain. Leave it there for 15-20 minutes. 

Preventing Back Spasms 

Maintaining good back health is imperative to preventing back spasms.

Make the following lifestyle changes to improve your back health:

  • Sit up straight when working
  • Maintain good posture throughout the day (keep your back straight and shoulders back)
  • Sleep on a medium-softness mattress
  • Bend your knees when lifting heavy objects to relieve pressure on your back

Risks of Back Spasms 

The following factors may increase your risk of back spasms.

Some you may not be able to help, but they’re all good to be aware of.

  • Age: As you get older, you are at a greater risk of back pain, starting around age 30 or 40.
  • Not exercising: It’s important to exercise to keep your muscles strong and avoid back pain.. 
  • Improper lifting and repetitive tasks: Using your back instead of your legs to lift heavy objects and repetitively straining your back can lead to back pain. 
  • Being overweight or pregnant: Having excess body weight can increase the strain on your back.
  • Diseases: Certain diseases such as arthritis and cancer can make a person more susceptible to back pain.
  • Depression and anxiety: These conditions have been associated with putting a person at greater risk of back pain.
  • Smoking: Being a regular smoker can put you at a greater risk of back pain, as smoking often causes coughing which can decrease blood flow to the spine and lead to osteoporosis.
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When to See a Doctor

Most back pain will improve after a week of home treatment and self-care. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should consult a health care expert immediately to be examined:

  • Fever
  • Loss of control of your bowels or your bladder
  • Inability to walk normally
  • Severe pain
  • Pain lasting more than 2 weeks
  • Swelling or redness on your back
  • Incessant, intense back pain when you lie down or at night while sleeping
  • The back pain travels down one or both legs, especially beyond your knee
  • Weakness, tingling, or numbness in one or both legs
  • Weight loss
  • Trouble urinating

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most common trigger for back spasms?
Poor posture, improper lifting, being overweight, and not exercising regularly can trigger back spasms.
How long does it take for back spasms to go away?
Back spasms typically go away on their own after a few days. Those with chronic cases may experience them for weeks; in this case, consult a doctor or physician to be examined for underlying causes.
What activities should be avoided when you have a back spasm?
Avoid heavy lifting or exercises which can strain the muscles more.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

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