Who can get a back strain?

When the lower spine muscles become swollen and inflamed, this is known as a strain. The majority of back strain pain will go away without help in one to four weeks.
When the lower spine muscles become swollen and inflamed, this is known as a strain. The majority of back strain pain will go away without help in one to four weeks.

Does your back hurt? You are not alone. Most people at one time or another will suffer from a slight back problem. In the United States, back pain is one of the most common medical problems.

Back injuries often occur during sports, tasks at work, or home projects. When the lower spine muscles become swollen and inflamed, this is known as a strain.  A strain can lead to muscle spasms and pain. Though less complicated than a fracture, the healing process depends on the cause and treatment. 

Over a lifetime, more than eighty percent of people will have low back pain. It is seen more commonly among people ages 40 to 80, and in women. Over 100 billion dollars are spent each year in the United States because of low back pain — factoring in decreased wages and absence from work.

A few people are more likely to develop a back strain. Risk factors include a family history of back pain, long periods of sitting, lifting of heavy items, and diseases such as arthritis or osteoporosis

What causes a back strain?

The lower back is a common place for a muscle strain because of its workload. It supports the weight of the upper body while twisting, bending, and moving. The strain happens when fibers in the muscle are irregularly torn or stretched. Sometimes ligaments are also torn from their attachments. Strains can result from an abrupt injury or muscle overuse over a period of time.

Small injuries may also come from falling or twisting of the spine.  More serious injuries can come from trauma to the head, car accidents, or falls from heights.  A stab wound or other direct injury to the back can also lead to strain and pain

How long does it take for a strain to heal?

The majority of back strain pain will go away without help in one to four weeks.  Of the cases that are seen in hospital emergency rooms, most can be dealt with conservatively. You must pay careful attention to easily seen warnings that can mean something more serious is going on.

If the pain lasts more than two weeks without at least easing up somewhat, you should seek medical attention. There may be a more serious injury to the muscles supporting the spine. These muscles include: 

  • Flexor muscles like the abdominal muscles 
  • Extensors like the gluteal muscles 
  • Obliques or side muscles 

Overall, most acute occurrences of back pain resolve within twelve weeks, though about a third of patients could have long-term symptoms. Management of back strains depends on a lot of things, including:

  • Type of symptoms 
  • Other medical conditions 
  • Specific cause 

What are the symptoms of a strained back?

Symptoms of a strained back include:

  • Stiffness in the lower back with range of motion reduction 
  • Muscle spasms at anytime 
  • Low back pain that can spread to the buttocks 
  • Stiffness and pain that prevents normal posture 
  • Pain that lasts for up to two weeks

Other conditions may mimic back strain symptoms. Infection in the lower back caused by osteomyelitis or an abscess can seem like back strain. Also, kidney conditions like kidney stones can cause back pain. Inflammation of the prostate in men — and pelvic inflammatory disease in women can also mimic strained back pain. You should visit your doctor if your symptoms do not resolve in a few weeks.

How is back strain diagnosed?

Unless pain has persisted for more than six weeks, diagnostic testing may not be needed. But if pain has persisted that long, it is important to rule out other things like a herniated disk. The following tests may be ordered by a doctor:

X-ray: Your doctor will look at the structure of your backbones and joints.

MRI: This 3D image is more specific than an x-ray. It can show the spinal cord, roots of the nerve, and soft tissue problems like enlargements or tumors.

Your doctor will also conduct a history and physical to see what exactly caused your strain. 

How do you treat back strain?

Back pain will not get better by lying down. Inactivity can actually make the pain worse. It reduces muscle tone and flexibility and might increase the risk of a blood clot.

Over-the-counter hot or cold packs can help with pain, as can some anti-inflammatory medicines.  Movement has been proven to normalize pain response with your nerves. Staying active is the best remedy. Your doctor may recommend certain exercises, but ultimately sprained back healing time is lessened if proper treatment is implemented early.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/10/2022
References
SOURCES:

American Association of Neurological Surgeons: "Low Back Strain and Sprain."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Babying your back may delay healing."

Sayed, Moustafa. StatPearls, "Mechanical Back Strain,” StatPearls Publishing, 2021.

University of Michigan Health. "Back Problems and Injuries."