First Aid for Back Strain

From weekend warriors to professional athletes, back strain is a common sports injury. Back strain occurs when one of the muscles supporting the spine is twisted, pulled, or torn.

Players in sports that involve a lot of jumping, such as basketball and volleyball, are particularly vulnerable. So are those returning to a sport after time away. It’s not uncommon to wind up with a sore back after the first golf or softball game of the season, for example. Being overweight or out of shape also increases the risk, as does having a history of past back injuries.

If it happens to you, knowing how to care for a strained back at home can help reduce your pain and get you back in action sooner. But it’s just as essential to know when to see a doctor. If you have more than a mild strain, professional treatment may prevent lasting damage.

Symptoms of Back Strain
Is your sore back after exercise the result of a strained muscle? Here are the telltale signs:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Muscle spasms or cramping
  • Muscle weakness or loss of function

Mild back strain can often be treated at home. But you should call a doctor right away for a back injury that causes any of these symptoms:

  • Severe pain or swelling
  • Pain that makes it impossible to move or walk more than a few steps
  • Pain that interferes with sleeping
  • Numbness in the injured area or down your leg

Also, check with your doctor if you have a history of previous back injuries or a spinal disorder.

First 48 Hours
For the first two days after straining your back, the goal of treatment is to decrease pain, swelling, and muscle spasms. Start these steps right away:

Rest. Cut back on your normal activities and exercise for a day or two, if necessary.

Ice. Put an ice pack on the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times a day. Use a cold pack, or fill a bag with ice and wrap it in a towel. Continue for 48 hours after the injury. During this period, icing decreases inflammation by constricting blood vessels, which limits blood flow to the area. Don’t apply heat at this time, because that has the opposite effect.

Medicine. An over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug—for example, aspirin, ibuprofen (such as Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (such as Aleve, Naprosyn)—may also help relieve pain and swelling.

After Two Days
When your back is hurting, it might seem like a good idea to go to bed for a week. But it’s actually better to get back to your normal activities as quickly as possible. Prolonged rest and immobility may delay your recovery.

After the first couple of days, applying heat to the injury site helps ease pain by relaxing tight muscles. Use a heating pad, heat lamp, or hot compress. Heat dilates blood vessels, which increases blood flow to the area. This promotes healing as blood brings in nutrients and carries away cell debris from damaged tissues.

In most cases, symptoms of back strain go away completely within two weeks. If yours last for longer, talk with your doctor.