Back spasm feels like tight muscle contractions, and they may affect movement. They can be treated with medication, lifestyle changes, and complementary therapies.

Around 13 percent of adults in the United States have chronic low back pain, making it the leading cause of disability in the United States. This can be caused by back spasms, which are involuntary contractions or tensing of the muscles in the lower back.

The condition ranges from infrequent spasms with mild discomfort to chronic spasms with severe pain that makes it difficult to move.

Back spasms can typically be treated effectively without surgery. Some intervention may be necessary if the pain is related to nerve problems in the spine.

Back spasms can be the result of injuries to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the back, or they can be related to more serious medical conditions. Heavy lifting is a common cause of back spasms.

In addition to heavy lifting, any activity that puts excessive strain on the muscles and ligaments in the lower back can cause an injury. Sports such as football and golf can lead to back spasms because they demand that the back turn suddenly and repeatedly.

Your back muscles may be more vulnerable if you have weak abdominal muscles, which help support the back. Weak or stiff muscles in the back itself can be injured more easily than muscles that are stronger and more limber.

Back spasms may occur if you have arthritis or a ruptured disc in your spine. Arthritis in the lower back can put pressure on the spinal cord, which may cause pain in the back and the legs. A ruptured or bulging disc in the vertebrae may also pressure a nerve and result in back pain.

Muscle-related tension is the most common reason for low back pain, particularly in people with fibromyalgia.

The intensity of back spasm pain depends on a wide range of factors, related to how long a person has been experiencing the pain and their overall health.

People may describe back spasms as:

  • subtle muscle twinges
  • a tight knot
  • sudden cramping that comes and goes
  • difficulty bending or moving
  • generalized weakness

Your doctor may order an X-ray to look for signs of arthritis or bone fracture.

They may also order an MRI or CT scan to gain a better look at the muscles and other soft tissues. These scans can also help identify possible problems with the discs or with blood supply to the affected area.

You can help your doctor arrive at an accurate diagnosis by explaining your symptoms in detail. Be ready to discuss:

  • the severity of your back pain
  • how often it flares up
  • what relieves the pain
  • when it started

Be sure to tell your doctor if you started getting spasms after a sports injury or after some other physical activity such as moving furniture. That may help determine whether a muscle injury caused the spasms.

If your spasms do begin after an injury or an activity that stressed the muscles, try alternating ice and heat on your back. Ice will help reduce inflammation and heat may help improve blood flow.

Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and muscle relaxants may help relieve symptoms while the muscles heal. Research from a 2016 review of studies supports the use of muscle relaxants for significant pain relief from short-term muscle spasms.

Injections of anti-inflammatory medication (cortisone) may also help. But there are potential side effects with every medication. Ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of these injections.

Chiropractic care may help, but be sure to see a doctor to have your condition properly diagnosed first. Physical therapy to help strengthen your back and abdominal muscles is often recommended.

In the middle of a back spasm, slowly make your way to the nearest comfortable chair or sofa. Here, you can try the following:

  1. Gently massage the spasm with your hand or a massage gun. This may temporarily ease the spasm.
  2. As you massage the area, be mindful of your breathing. Take slow inhales and exhales to reduce stress-induced pain. Diaphragmatic breathing may help you calm down.
  3. Apply alternate heat and ice in 15–20 minute intervals. Wrap ice packs in a towel to avoid ice burns, and give your skin a break after icing.
  4. If possible, try to find a comfortable lower back stretch, such as Child’s Pose or a seated spinal twist. This requires you to stand up from the couch and get to the floor, so only proceed if you feel comfortable with these movements.

Regular stretching helps people with chronic back pain, but for an acute back spasm, this may cause additional swelling to the affected area.

The best course of action for a temporary muscle spasm is to get plenty of rest, take it easy, and call your doctor if the pain gets worse.

Your back works hard for you. The better you take care of it, the lower your risk of developing back spasms will become. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Maintaining a moderate weight can help relieve the stress on your spine and your joints.
  • Standing up straight and wearing low-heeled shoes will help provide stability and reduce tension on the muscles in the lower back.
  • Engaging in regular physical activity, such as strengthening exercises for your back and (core) abdomen muscles will also help keep you moving and feeling good.
  • Spending too much time in bed or in a seat will lead to worsening back problems.

If you aren’t currently physically active, talk with your doctor before beginning an exercise program. They may suggest certain exercises that will be easier on your back.

If you do develop back spasms, don’t hesitate to contact a doctor. Back pain is generally treatable, and lifestyle modifications can help you get back to an active life.

Read this article in Spanish.