Crippling Back Spasms

Back pain is a common affliction. You’ve probably experienced back pain at one time or another in your life—whether chronic or acute. It can feel mildly uncomfortable or leave you in extreme agony. Crippling back pain can leave you doubled over, unable to get through your day-to-day activities.

If you have a severe back disorder, it may cause temporary, recurring, or chronic pain. Back spasms can leave a person immobile and struggling to complete everyday tasks without groaning in pain.

woman work at laptop suffer from spinal spasm

fizkes / Getty Images

What Is a Back Spasm?

A back spasm is an involuntary contraction of the back muscles. Moving in a certain way may trigger a back spasm. More often than not, spasms happen because of muscle weakness, overuse, or injury. 

Chronic back spasms may be the result of an underlying condition. If muscle spasms are particularly severe, they may stem from nerve irritation or damage.

Common Causes 

Muscle spasms can happen for several reasons. Here are a few common causes.

Muscle Strain

A muscle strain is an injury that can happen due to overuse. Sudden forces can also cause acute muscle strain injuries. Twisting motions, for instance, can cause acute back strains.

A common location for muscle strains is the lower back. In addition to causing sudden pain and lingering soreness, muscle strains can also cause painful back spasms.

Facet Joint Osteoarthritis

Facet joints are the bones that connect the different portions of your spine. With facet joint osteoarthritis, the cartilage surrounding these joints breaks down, which causes pain. If bone spurs develop, nerve irritation can also occur.

Degenerative Disc Disease

Over time, your body experiences wear and tear. Aging takes a toll on many parts of the body, including the joints. Degenerative disc disease is a type of arthritis of the spine that involves the degradation of joint cartilage. This type of degeneration doesn’t always cause symptoms. When it does, the pain can be severe, potentially causing spasms.

Herniated Disc

The different bones in your spine are separated and cushioned by discs. When a disc herniates, it bulges from its original place, putting pressure on surrounding nerves. This causes pain and can also lead to spasming. You can get a herniated disc because of repeated strain or traumatic injury. Herniation can also happen due to aging.

Signs of Severe Conditions

Back pain is sometimes a sign of a serious condition. These symptoms are a red flag and should prompt you to visit a doctor. If you’re experiencing several of these together, consider it an emergency and see someone right away.

Incontinence

If you have back pain or spasms and cannot control your bladder or bowel movements, it’s a sign that the nerves in your spine are severely damaged. Having incontinence with back pain can be a symptom of:

  • Severe nerve compression
  • Infection

Numbness

You can get a pins and needles sensation if you sit too long with your feet tucked under your body. The feeling can also be a symptom of sciatica. But if you feel numbness in your groin or buttock area, you may have a serious spinal condition.

Weakness in Legs

Weakness that comes on suddenly is cause for concern. If it happens with back pain, it may be a symptom of a serious spine condition affecting the nerves.

Radiating Pain

Pain that travels down the body into your legs can also be a sign of severe nerve compression.

Sharp Pain

If you describe your back pain as sharp, it might not even be back pain. Sharp pain in this area may be a symptom of a muscle injury. It can also be a sign that there’s trouble brewing with an internal organ, like the kidneys.

Is It Sciatica Pain?

Sciatica happens when the sciatic nerve in your spine becomes irritated and causes pain. Because this extra-long nerve extends down your legs, it can cause pain anywhere from the lower back to the toes. Pain can be mild or severe.

It’s typically a symptom of something else. A herniated disc, for example, can cause sciatic nerve compression or inflammation. It’s also one of the most common reasons for this type of radiating nerve pain. Other conditions that may cause sciatica include:

Diagnosis

To diagnose what may be causing painful back spasms, doctors will take your medical history. They'll also ask you to describe the pain and any other symptoms you're having.

A doctor may ask you to perform movements to assess imbalances or weakness. They may also perform imaging tests, such as:

  • X-rays
  • Electromyography, to test nerve impulses
  • Myelogram
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Blood tests

Treatment

Treating back spasms involves treating the underlying cause. Treatment can also vary depending on whether the pain is chronic or acute. 

Acute Pain 

Treating acute back pain may involve:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
  • Topical pain creams or gels
  • Hot and cold therapy to relieve inflammation
  • Muscle relaxants 
  • Stretching, as suggested by your doctor

Rest might help if you have a sudden, painful back spasm. Overall, though, doctors don’t recommend prolonged rest for either acute or chronic back pain.

Chronic Pain

Non-invasive treatments for chronic back pain include:

  • Physical therapy to strengthen muscles and resolve muscle weakness and imbalances
  • Relaxation strategies 
  • Lifestyle changes, including posture improvement 
  • Steroid injections or nerve blocks 
  • Pain medication, including NSAIDs and opioids (note that opioids come with a risk of addiction)
  • Hot and cold therapy
  • Gentle exercise

Some people also find relief with alternative therapies such as acupuncture. 

Surgery is an option, but it's often the last resort. There's no guarantee that surgery will help resolve symptoms.

Combination Therapy

Doctors often treat back pain using a combination of therapies. Combining different treatments such as physical therapy and steroid injections may provide better results.

Coping

While painful back spasms can disrupt your everyday activities, it’s possible to live with back pain. Some strategies that may help you cope and recover from back pain include:

  • Minimizing the amount of time you spend sitting
  • Maintaining good posture while sitting and standing
  • Having good form when lifting heavy objects or exercising
  • Sleeping on a comfortable, supportive mattress
  • Avoiding sleeping on your stomach
  • Strengthening your back and abdominal muscles 
  • Exercising, avoiding high-impact activities or movements that strain the back
  • Warming up before starting a workout with dynamic stretches

What About a Chiropractor?

A chiropractor may be able to help you with your back spasms and pain. However, it’s essential to see a doctor first. Some chiropractic treatments, such as spinal manipulation, can help with chronic pain issues but aren’t appropriate for certain conditions, like spinal arthritis.

A Word From Verywell 

If crippling back spasms and back pain are constantly interrupting your life, it’s time to see a doctor. Talk to your doctor, even if you’re convinced that the pain is because of poor posture or some other minor issue.

You deserve to have relief from pain. A doctor can help you figure out the root of the problem and if there’s an underlying cause that requires specific treatment. 

Was this page helpful?
Article 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. Main Line Health. Back spasms

  2. Cedars Sinai. Lumbar strain

  3. Perolat R, Kastler A, Nicot B, et al. Facet joint syndrome: from diagnosis to interventional management. Insights Imaging. 2018;9(5):773–789. doi:10.1007/s13244-018-0638-x

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Degenerative disc disease

  5. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Herniated disc

  6. Dickson D, et al. 5 signs your back pain might be an emergency. UT Southwestern Medical Center. July 3, 2019.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Sciatica. March 25, 2020.

  8. Cleveland Clinic. Sciatica: Diagnosis and tests. March 25, 2020.

  9. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low back pain fact sheet. April 27, 2020. 

  10. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 7 ways to treat chronic back pain without surgery

  11. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low back pain fact sheet. April 27, 2020.

  12. Cleveland Clinic. Low back pain: Coping.

  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Prevent back pain. October 15, 2020.

Additional Reading