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Back spasms: What they are, what to do

Written by: Evelyn Corsini, MSW
Published: July 22, 2008
Reviewed by: Kevin Zacharoff, MD

Back spasms: What they are, what to do

To understand muscle spasms, start by reviewing what you know about the different parts of the spine.  You can think of the spine as a framework or scaffolding holding up the body.  The spine is a collection of bony rings, called vertebrae, whose major function is to provide support for the body and protection for the spinal cord.  The vertebrae are stacked on one another, separated by firm, pliable "cushions" called discs.  The stack of bones and discs is held together by ligaments, and moved by muscles.  The vertebrae form a kind of "tunnel" that houses the spinal cord—a collection of nerves that form a "communications highway," sending and receiving messages from your brain, and branching off to the rest of your body.

What are muscle spasms?

Muscles act like ropes in the scaffolding, helping to “suspend” the spine.  A muscle spasm is usually a sprain or a strain.  It is an involuntary sustained cramping or tightening of the muscle fibers.  Sometimes, it may feel like a “knot.”  Muscle related causes are the most common reason for back pain.  Muscle spasms can be brought on by injury or inflammation (swelling), and can even be brought about by dehydration (not drinking enough liquids).  Muscle spasms may also occur as the result of injury to the underlying structures, the vertebrae, or discs.  The feeling of tightening may occur at different times, lasting from a few seconds to several minutes, or even days.

The fact is that muscles in the back never rest, when you are sitting, lying down, or even sleeping.  If the muscles on one side of your back were to tighten, the other side would try to relax, to compensate to keep your spine in proper position.  Since the muscles in the back are always at work, it is hard to give them the chance to rest and heal when they are injured.

What is the treatment for back muscle spasms?

It is important to keep active when you are having muscle spasms.  At the same time, lessen the chance of further injury by not playing sports, avoiding heavy lifting, and limiting activities that cause more pain.  You can treat a muscle spasm with direct measures such as hot or cold packs, massage, hot baths, or some over-the-counter medications, like acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

When should you see your health care provider?

Contact your health care provider if you develop these symptoms along with muscle spasm:

  • Sudden difficulty controlling your bowel or bladder function

  • Muscle weakness in your arms or legs that make you feel unstable when you walk, and decreases in the distance you can walk

  • Pain and numbness traveling down your arms or legs, especially if this increases when sneezing, coughing, or sitting down

  • Increased pain when lying down and the inability to sleep at night

  • Fever, weight loss, or other signs of illness when you are experiencing muscle spasms

Generally, it’s a good rule of thumb that if you are not feeling some improvement after three days (72 hours), to contact your health care provider.

Summary

Since the muscles in the back work so hard, 24 hours a day, it is easy to understand that an injury may cause pain, and that recovering from the pain will take time.  Listen to your body as you decide how much to cut back on your activities, and try treatments that will sooth your muscles. 


References

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (2005). Handout on health: back pain. Retrieved June 19, 2008 from http://www.niams.nih.gov 

Patient Education Institute (2007). X-Plain™ How to Prevent Back Pain? Retrieved June 19, 2008 from MedLinePlus Tutorials www.medlineplus.gov