Back Muscle Pain

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Man experiencing back pain, possibly due to a muscle problem.

Back pain is an extremely common problem among adults, with approximately 4 out of 5 reporting lower back pain at some time in life. Many cases of back pain are actually more accurately described as back muscle pain, since they arise from muscle injuries.

A primary cause of back muscle pain is a pulled (or overstretched) muscle, typically in the lower back. Although this is less common, muscle pain can also be experienced in the middle and upper back as well.

In general, back muscle  injuries do not lead to chronic back pain. Instead, the pain is acute and lasts for a relatively short time. However, while it lasts it can be quite severe. Chronic back pain is usually the result of conditions like spinal stenosis or herniated disks that cause pinched nerve roots in or near the spine.

Muscle pain can also be a result of a muscle that is torn, not just stretched. In general, injuries that result from torn or overstretched back muscles are called back muscle strains.

In this article, we examine the symptoms of a pulled or torn back muscle (in addition to the muscle pain). We will also look at the typical causes of this type of injury and discuss the typical treatment plans for it.

Back Muscle Pain Risk Factors

Typical factors that may increase the risk of back pain due to muscle injuries include:

  • Trying to lift a heavy object, especially if you lift with incorrect technique. The mistake that most people make while lifting is to keep the legs straight and bend the spine, instead of the other way around. With the legs straight, most of the load is borne by the back muscles instead of the stronger hamstring and quadricep leg muscles.
  • Twisting the spine while lifting, which is another common mistake;
  • Impacts on the lower back such as from a fall;
  • Poor posture, in which the individual spends too much time with the shoulders hunched forward, particularly when sitting. This puts too much upper body weight on the lower back. The result of this over an extended period can be a lower back muscle strain.You can read more about poor posture here.
  • Sports activities that require the athlete to sharply twist the torso, or absorb large forces from falls or collisions.

Symptoms Of Back Muscle Pain

With a strained back muscle, the symptoms that might be experienced in addition to the pain include:

  • Cramps or muscle spasms in the back;
  • Trouble standing, walking or bending without pain, possible even more severe than normal;
  • In the case of a severe back strain, the area over the damaged muscle may be red , tender or swollen;
  • There may also be bruising over the painful area.

In addition, an individual with a strained back may feel the pain radiating downwards as far as the buttocks. However, the pain typically does not go as far as the legs.If the pain does go down into the legs, this is a possible sign of a pinched nerve instead of muscle pain. The pinched nerve can itself be a result of spinal stenosis or a herniated disk.

If you are experiencing all or most of the above symptoms, seeking medical advice as soon as possible is a good idea.

Treatment For Back Muscle Pain

Typically, treatment for a back muscle injury that causes pain will usually start with conservative home based methods. If these do not work, doctors may try to administer further treatment in the office or clinic. Surgery to treat this type of pain isusally a lst resort and is rarely necessary.

Home treatment

  • Doctors may recommend a brief period of bed rest. However, avoid doing this for more than a day or two, as it may cause weakening of back muscles. This in turn can lead to a higher risk of another strain in the future;
  • Wearing a back brace can provide support for your back muscles and help to protect them from stress. Some back braces can also apply compression to the back muscles, which can improve blood flow and promote healing;
  • Apply a cold compress or ice pack in the early stages of the injury for pain relief and to reduce swelling. Do this for 20-30 minute periods and at intervals of 2-3 hours. Remember to wrap the ice pack or compress in a towel prior to application. This will reduce the risk of skin injuries;
  • Once the pain and swelling have eased (usually over a few days), switch to hot compresses to increase blood flow through the injured area;
  • If necessary, use an over the counter (OTC) anti inflammatory medication like Ibuprofen or Naproxen to further reduce pain. Be careful to check with your doctor (or the pharmacist) for advice about possible interactions with other medications you may be taking.;
  • Back massages can also help to reduce the symptoms of a back strain. You can ask the therapist about pain relieving creams or lotions that can be worked into your skin during the massage;
  • If back spasms are occurring, doctors may be willing to prescribe muscle relaxants to ease that problem;
  • Physical therapy exercises to stretch and strengthen the back muscles can have long term benefits. Stretching and strengthening these muscles can make them less susceptible to additional strains in the future.

In most cases, following the home based treatment steps listed above should enable a return to light activity after a few days. Returning to intense physical activity may take a little longer – perhaps 2-3 weeks. Individuals should avoid a full return to regular activity until the pain has completely gone.


Back muscle pain is among the most debilitating experiences one can have. To prevent it altogether (or reduce the risk of its occurrence) we suggest the following:

  • Physical therapy to loosen and strengthen the back muscles will reduce the long term risk of a back muscle strain;
  • Stretch and warm up properly before beginning any intense physical activity such as exercise. This is especially important when the activity is taking place outdoors in cool or cold conditions;
  • Losing weight to reduce the weight of the upper body on the lower back;
  • Improved posture (such as keeping the shoulders straight) while sitting or standing;
  • Using a firm mattress for sleeping;
  • Sleeping on your side with the knees drawn up.

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