Causes of Back Spasms

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Many people with low back pain or sciatica describe the pain as a tight muscle or back spasm. Back spasms may feel mild, like a small fist is pressing into one side of your spine. Or, they may feel intense and prevent you from sitting, standing, or walking comfortably.

Bask spasms may become so severe that you have difficulty maintaining normal upright posture. And if back spasms become so severe that you cannot move properly, you may need to seek medical care right away. So what causes back spasms, and what can you do about them if they happen to you?

woman with back pain holding her back

Pornpak Khunatorn / Getty Images

What Is a Back Spasm?

A back spasm is a sudden onset of back tightness. Usually it feels like a tight muscle, and sometimes the tight sensation becomes so intense and severe that it prevents you from moving normally. A back spasm may last for several hours to several days. Some people with back spasms have difficulty bending forward due to the pain and tightness.

Common sensations and symptoms felt when you have a back spasm may include:

  • Pain on one or both sides of your back
  • A tight sensation in your back
  • Difficulty bending your spine
  • Pulsing pains and sensations in your low back

Sometimes back spasms may cause you to feel pain in your buttocks and hips. When they are really severe, they may be accompanied by nerve pain, numbness, and tingling that radiates down one or both legs.

Causes

Back spasms are caused by tight muscle tissue. But this tightness often occurs as a result of some other mechanical stress. The stress produces a situation in your body where the muscle tissue near your spine becomes pulled abnormally. As a result of this pulling, the muscle fibers become taut, and a feeling of painful tightness occurs.

Mechanical causes of back spasms may include:

All of these problems place increased stress through the anatomical structures in your spine. Your low back muscles near these structures may go into a protective spasm, causing a tight and painful sensation in your back.

Other non-mechanical causes of low back spasms may include:

If you have a condition that puts stress and strain through your spine, you may be at risk for back spasms.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors for lower back spasms. Some of these are modifiable, while others cannot be changed.

Risk factors for back spasms include:

  • Poor sitting posture
  • Age
  • Bone weakening disease
  • Frequent heavy lifting
  • Obesity or excess weight
  • Psychological conditions and emotional stress
  • Smoking

If you have any of these risk factors, work to minimize them or avoid them. You can stop smoking, take up exercise (under the guidance of your doctor), or engage in positive activities that help you manage stress.

If you have back spasms, you may need to check in with your physician to get a proper diagnosis and the correct treatment.

When To See a Doctor

Most episodes of low back spasms will go away on their own, but sometimes your condition may require that you visit your physician for proper treatment. Symptoms that indicate you should visit a medical professional right away for your back spasms may include:

  • Spasms that came on after significant trauma
  • Back spasms that are accompanied by tingling, numbness, or weakness in one or both of your legs
  • Spasms accompanied by difficulty initiating urination or difficulty holding in a bowel movement (this requires rapid medical care to correct)
  • Low back spasms that prevent you from sitting or standing with an upright posture
  • Spasms that come on with fever or within a few weeks of unexplained weight loss
  • Spasms that do not improve with a week or two of rest

Naturally, if you have any symptom that causes you to worry that something serious is going on, call your physician. There is no harm in having a discussion about your spasms with your doctor. They can then determine if you need to be seen and can offer guidance on how to best treat your condition.

When Is It a Medical Emergency?

If you are having back spasms that are accompanied by a sudden loss of bowel or bladder function, this is a condition called cauda equina syndrome. It is a medical emergency and you should get to your physician or emergency department right away.

When visiting your physician about your back spasms, they will likely perform various tests to determine the mechanical cause of your pain. These tests may include:

These tests are designed to give your physician an idea of your movements and the status of the bones, nerves, discs, and muscles of your low back. Then, an accurate diagnosis can be made as to what is causing your back spasms. The right treatment can then be initiated for your back spasms.

Treatment

Treatment for back spasm may include home remedies or treatments from medical providers. The treatments are designed to relieve your back spasms and manage the mechanical stresses that may have caused your spasms. Medical professionals can also teach you strategies to prevent back spasms.

Home remedies for back spasms may include:

  • Analgesic medication
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Low back massage
  • Gentle stretching
  • Postural changes
  • Application of heat or ice

If any of these self-care strategies fail to manage your back spasms, you may need to visit a medical professional for treatment. Medical treatments for back spasms may include:

Injections and surgery for your pain are rather invasive and risky, and they should be considered as a last resort treatment for your back spasms. Most people with back spasms are able to manage with physical therapy or chiropractic care that includes learning exercises and postures that help relieve tightness in the low back.

How Long Do Back Spasms Last?

Most episodes of back spasms last for only a few days. Some severe cases last about six to eight weeks, but spasms and pain should subside gradually over that time period, allowing you to move normally and get back to your normal activity.

Preventing Back Spasms

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Prevention of back spasms is of paramount importance, especially if you have suffered from spasms in the past. Ideas to prevent back spasms may include:

  • Postural correction techniques
  • Engaging in aerobic exercise
  • Quitting smoking
  • Performing daily stretching and strengthening exercises for your back muscles
  • Performing meditation or other stress management techniques
  • Utilizing proper lifting techniques
  • Remaining well-hydrated throughout the day

Simple changes in your lifestyle can have a drastic effect on your low back spasms. Working closely with your physician, physical therapist, or personal trainer can help you get started on the road to preventing back spasms.

A Word From Verywell

There are many possible causes of back spasms. Mechanical changes in your spine may place increased stress on your muscles, and anxiety or stress may cause your back to feel tight. When you feel back spasms coming on, you can try various home self-care strategies to manage the problem.

Persistent or severe back spasms may require help from your physician or other medical professional. If you have back spasms, learning the cause of your problem and how to best manage it can help you quickly and safely return to your previous level of function and activity.

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