Back Strains and Sprains: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

About 80% of people will have back pain at some point. It usually happens in the lower back because it does a lot of heavy lifting when we move.

Back sprains happen when the tough ligaments that hold our bones together stretch or tear. Back strains are about the muscles and tendons.

Sometimes, we don’t know why the pain happens. Even if the first problem or injury is gone, the pain might stay.

What is a Strain?

A strain is when a muscle or tendon gets hurt. Tendons are tough, stringy bands that connect muscles to bones.

So, when we talk about a back strain, it means the muscles and tendons supporting the spine have been twisted, pulled, or torn.

What is a Sprain?

A sprain is when a tough tissue band called a ligament, which connects bones at a joint to keep it stable, gets stretched or torn. This can happen from too much movement or stress on the joint.

What Causes Back Strains and Sprains?

Back strains and sprains happen when something goes wrong with your back muscles. Here are some common causes:

  1. Lifting Too Much: If you lift heavy things the wrong way, it can hurt your back muscles.

  2. Sports and Physical Activities: Playing rough sports or doing strenuous activities can lead to injuries if you get hit or bumped.

  3. Overusing Your Back: Using your back muscles too much without giving them a break can cause strain or sprain.

  4. Twisting or Bending Incorrectly: If you twist or bend your back in a bad way, it can damage the soft parts inside.

When these injuries occur, they can cause:

  • Damage to Soft Parts: Muscles, tendons, or ligaments in your back can get hurt.
  • Inflammation: Your back might swell and get inflamed.
  • Bruising and Swelling: You might see bruises and swelling on your back.
  • Muscle Spasms: Your muscles may cramp up and feel uncomfortable.

These injuries can really affect your daily life by causing:

  • Pain: The pain can be sharp, burning, dull, or stabbing.
  • How Long It Lasts: Usually, it hurts for a few weeks, but it can become a long-lasting problem if it takes a while to heal or if you get hurt again.

Your back muscles have different parts:

  • Extensors: Like your gluteal muscles (buttocks).
  • Flexors: Including your abdominal muscles.
  • Side Muscles: These help keep your spine steady.

When these muscles, tendons, or ligaments get hurt, they send pain signals through your nerves. This can make you feel stiff and affect how you move. Muscle spasms can also change how you stand or sit as your body tries to avoid pain. Sometimes, it can be hard to stand up straight because of the pain and muscle tension.

What are the Symptoms of a back strain or sprain?

If you think you’ve strained a muscle in your back, look for these signs and symptoms:

  1. Pain: You may feel anything from a sharp to a dull ache.
  2. Triggered Pain: The pain might get worse with certain movements or activities.
  3. Muscle Cramping: You could experience muscle spasms.
  4. Inflammation: Watch out for redness, swelling, and tenderness in the affected area.
  5. Weakness or Tightness: You might sense weakness or tightness, possibly in other areas too.
  6. Activity-Related Pain: If bending over or standing causes lower back pain, it’s a clear sign of a strained back muscle.
  7. Morning Stiffness: Many people with a strained back muscle wake up with more pain and stiffness. However, this discomfort often eases as the muscles warm up and stretch throughout the day, according to Dr. Chang.

These are the main signs that you might have pulled a muscle in your back.

How are back sprains and strains diagnosed?

When you hurt a muscle or joint near your spine, doctors usually start by thinking it might be a strain or sprain. One early sign is having trouble moving, but this often improves if you rest.

Doctors don’t rush to do MRI, CT scans, or X-rays right away unless your symptoms get worse or don’t get better with rest. They use these tests to check for more serious problems like issues with your discs or a pinched nerve.

How to Treat Back Strains and Sprains

Treating back strains and sprains involves two phases to reduce pain and aid recovery.

Phase 1 – Immediate Relief (First 24-48 hours):

  1. Rest: Avoid strenuous activities.
  2. Ice Packs: Apply for 15-20 minutes to reduce inflammation and pain.
  3. Compression: Gently press on the injured area to reduce swelling.
  4. Over-the-Counter Medication: Use ibuprofen as directed for pain and swelling.

Phase 2 – Gradual Return to Normal Activities (After 48 hours):

  1. Resume activities gradually; don’t overdo it.
  2. Listen to your body; if an activity hurts, ease up or avoid it.
  3. Most people improve within 2 weeks.
  4. If symptoms persist, seek further medical help.

Follow your healthcare provider’s advice for the best results in managing back strains and sprains.

Learn more: Treat Chronic Back Pain Without Surgery

How to Avoid Back Injuries

To prevent back sprains and strains, you can take these simple steps:

  1. Eat a healthy diet to keep your bones and muscles strong.

  2. Maintain a healthy weight to reduce stress on your lower back.

  3. Exercise regularly, including stretching, to keep your joints and muscles strong.

  4. Prevent falls by wearing proper shoes and keeping walkways clear.

  5. Use good body mechanics:

    • Sit and stand with a straight back and shoulders back.
    • Keep your knees bent and feet flat while sitting.
    • Avoid overreaching and twisting.
    • When lifting, bend your knees and use your leg muscles.
  6. Quit smoking, as it can harm your muscles’ blood flow.

Following these tips can lower your risk of back injuries and improve your back health.

When and How to Get Medical Help for Low Back Pain

If you’ve had low back pain for more than one to two weeks, it’s a good idea to see a doctor. Start by making an appointment with your primary care physician.

However, there are some warning signs that should make you seek immediate medical attention if they happen with your back pain:

  1. Severe abdominal pain
  2. Unexplained fever (temperature above 100.4°F or 38.0°C)
  3. Loss of control over your bowels or bladder

If you have any of these symptoms along with your back pain, don’t wait. Contact a healthcare professional right away. Or, you may make an appointment with our online pain management consultation

Need professional help to relieve chronic pain? Book an online consultation with physical therapist Dr. Olivia Patel.

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