All of us put a lot of stress on our backs. We bend, lift, and slouch, all of which are bad for our backs. Four out of five adults will have back pain at some point in their lives, says the Mayo Clinic. Two out of every three cases are caused by injuries to the muscles and ligaments in the lower back. These injuries hurt, but they can also go away on their own. Most people can expect to get better quickly if they get the right care.
What are twists and pulls?
The muscles that support the spine and the tough, fibrous ligaments that hold the vertebrae together make a healthy back strong and flexible. Unfortunately, these tissues can’t always handle the stress of everyday life. When you put too much stress on your back, the muscles or ligaments can tear. We call this back strain. Ligaments that are stretched can hurt even if they aren’t torn. A sprain is this kind of injury.
Whether you have a strain or a sprain doesn’t matter. It hurts if your back hurts. Your doctor might not even be able to tell which is which. Luckily, there are ways to treat and prevent each type of injury that work just as well.
Who is likely to get a back sprain or strain?
Repetitive, forceful movements can easily hurt the back. People who bend, lift, and twist a lot usually know what it’s like to have back pain. On the other hand, people who don’t exercise much are also more likely to get sprains and strains. If muscles and ligaments aren’t used, they can get weak. When a person who hasn’t done much suddenly decides to move a couch or shovel the sidewalk, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they get hurt.
What signs do sprains and strains show?
Most sprains and strains cause a dull, aching pain that spreads across the lower back. The pain could be on just one side or both. You might not be able to bend your back all the way or stand up straight. You may also have muscle spasms from time to time, especially when you move or sleep. When you have a spasm, the muscles in your back can tighten into a painful knot.
How can I make the pain stop?
Most ligament and muscle injuries heal in two weeks if given time. Staying active, within limits, helps heal. Most people find their discomfort goes gone if they return to normal life quickly. Use common sense. If your profession demands heavy lifting or other hard work, you may need time off to heal.
If lying down feels pleasant, stay in bed for a few days. However, too much bedtime can weaken muscles and hinder recovery.
NSAIDs like aspirin or ibuprofen help alleviate back discomfort while it recovers (such as Motrin or Advil). Follow dose directions and don’t take more than necessary. FDA labels medications to warn of heart and stomach concerns. If you need painkillers for several days, see a doctor.
Cold and heat can ease back discomfort. The Mayo Clinic recommends applying a cold pack (a bag of ice wrapped in a towel) as soon as discomfort begins. Try the cold pack for 20 minutes each day. When the pain subsides, a heating pad can loosen muscles and promote healing.
If these don’t work, try massage. One study indicated that therapeutic massage may benefit persons with low back pain more than back exercises.
A recent assessment by the evidence-based Cochrane Collaboration concluded that massage might benefit persons with subacute (lasting four to 12 weeks) and chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks) low-back pain. Massage proved most useful when paired with exercises and learning, according to the analysis.
Some research demonstrates acupuncture works.
What about taking painkillers for your back?
Consumer Reports says that research shows that narcotics do not help with low back pain. The magazine also said that about half of the people who take them have side effects like trouble breathing, constipation, reflux, heartburn, cramps, nausea, and vomiting. One in four people also have addiction or other drug abuse problems, so Consumer Reports says to stay away from narcotics if you have low back pain.
When do I need to go to the doctor?
The Mayo Clinic says that most people with sprains or strains don’t need to go to the doctor for four to six weeks. Most likely, the pain will go away before you need to make an appointment. Some situations need to be dealt with quickly. If you don’t feel better after three days or if you have a fever, you should talk to a doctor.
You should also call your doctor right away if you have back pain for the first time after you turn 50, if you have a serious injury, or if you lose weight for no reason. You should also call your doctor if you have constant, severe pain or pain that spreads down a leg or makes a leg weak or numb. All of these are signs that you may have more than just a strained or sprain back.
What kinds of care can a doctor give?
First, your doctor will try to figure out why you are hurting. Sprains and strains can’t be seen on x-rays or any other test, but the way you feel can give a pretty good idea of what’s wrong. If you’ve been in pain for a few weeks and it doesn’t seem to be getting better, your doctor may give you an x-ray or a high-tech imaging test to check for herniated disks or other injuries. Cancer and spinal infections can also be found or ruled out by these tests.
Your doctor may give you stronger NSAIDs to help you deal with your pain. Some people feel better when they take muscle relaxants, but they usually don’t work any better than NSAIDs, and they often make people sleepy.
If your doctor tells you that you need surgery, you need to know why. If you need to, make sure to get a second opinion. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine says that surgery has never been shown to help with back sprains or strains, so your doctor is unlikely to suggest it if that’s the only problem.
How can I avoid sprains and strains in my back?
If you’ve had back pain before, it’s likely to happen again. Your job is to make sure the attacks are as short and far apart as possible. Don’t use your back to lift heavy things. Instead, use your legs.
Ask your doctor what exercises you can do to strengthen your back weak muscles. A program of strengthening and stretching will help keep the lifting muscles in good shape and less likely to strain. Keep your back straight when you stand or sit to protect yourself even more.
In short, don’t let the pain in your back make your life hard.