Causes of Low Back Stiffness

Back stiffness is usually caused by a strained muscle or arthritis in the lumbar spine. The lumbar spine is the area that consists of the five vertebrae in the lower back.

People with stiffness caused by lumbar spine arthritis usually have steadily increasing symptoms over years. A strain, on the other hand, is usually related to acute trauma (such as lifting a heavy weight incorrectly). This causes the back muscles to seize up and stiffen.

This article will explain the differences of these two main causes of low back stiffness and how each condition is treated.

Causes

Here are the differences between the causes of lumbar strain and lumbar spine osteoarthritis:

Causes of Stiffness in Lower Back - Illustration by Alexandra Gordon

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Lumbar Strain

A lumbar strain is the most common cause of back stiffness. This problem occurs as a result of an injury to the back muscles and ligaments that support the spinal column. Lifting a heavy box or doing an exercise the wrong way are two examples of activities that can strain the lower back.

Lumbar strains will occur in around the muscles that support the spine, including the:

  • Extensors: Back and buttock muscles
  • Flexors: Abdominal muscles and hip muscles
  • Obliques or rotators: Side muscles

Diagnostic testing is usually not necessary unless the stiffness and pain persist for more than two weeks. If they do, your healthcare provider will order an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test to help figure out the underlying cause.

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Lumbar Spine Osteoarthritis

Lumbar spine osteoarthritis is a progressive condition (one that gets worse over time). It is a result of damage to the vertebrae due to long-term wear and tear. As arthritis progresses, cartilage and discs in the lumbar spine begin to thin and disappear. This results in bone rubbing against bone, causing pain and stiffness. This can make movements such as bending, stooping, and twisting very difficult.

X-rays can diagnose osteoarthritis by detecting bone damage, bone spurs (osteophytes), bone remodeling (ossification), and the loss of joint cartilage that can occur over time. They may be less useful in early-stage arthritis when the signs are less visible.

An experienced clinician can often make a diagnosis of osteoarthritis even if X-rays don't show visible bone damage.

Treatment

Most of the time, lumbar strains and lumbar spine arthritis can be treated with simple measures you can do on your own. (In some cases, lumbar arthritis may require surgery, but this is not common.)

In general, most patients with back stiffness will benefit from the following treatments:

Light Activity

Light activity is advised when overcoming back stiffness. In the past, bed rest was the first-line course of treatment but that's rarely the case in anything but the most severe back injuries. However, most healthcare providers today recommend light activity rather than complete immobilization.

Light activities include walking slowly, doing light household chores such as putting away groceries or folding laundry.

Performing light activity can be very helpful in relieving discomfort. However, it's important to avoid activities that involved bending or twisting.

Ice and Heat

Ice and heat application can be very helpful for relieving pain due to back stiffness. Gently heating the spine with a heating pad or pack before activities can also help to loosen and relax sore muscles and relieve some tension in the lumbar spine.

Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) can help relieve back pain and stiffness. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe muscle relaxers and prescription NSAIDs like Celebrex (celecoxib) if over-the-counter drugs aren't working.

Stretching and Exercises

Gentle back stretches and exercises can also help to relieve low back stiffness. Many patients also feel better when doing yoga or Pilates.

Summary

Lower back stiffness is typically caused by arthritis in the lumbar spine or an acute injury caused by an activity that strains the back muscles. Most of the time, simple treatments like stretching and using ice and heat will provide relief.

A Word From Verywell

Sometimes back pain doesn't go away or gets worse despite following the recommended measures, If this is the case, contact your healthcare provider, who can run diagnostic tests. In some cases, symptoms of low back pain and stiffness will require more intensive treatments.

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2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low Back Pain Fact Sheet.

  2. Goode, A.; Carey, T.; and Jordan, J. Low Back Pain and Lumbar Spine Osteoarthritis: How Are They Related? Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2013;15(2):305. doi:10.1007/s11926-012-0305-z

Additional Reading
  • Freburger JK, Holmes GM, Agans RP, et al. The rising prevalence of chronic low back pain. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(3):251-8. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2008.543

  • Goode, A.; Carey, T.; and Jordan, J. Low Back Pain and Lumbar Spine Osteoarthritis: How Are They Related? Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2013;15(2):305. doi:10.1007/s11926-012-0305-z