Why Back Spasms Happen—And How to Treat Them

<p>Kateryna Onyshchuk / Getty Images</p>

Kateryna Onyshchuk / Getty Images

Back spasms are sudden, involuntary contractions of the muscles that can cause lower back pain. Pain from a spasm can vary in intensity and may feel like tightness in the form of a knot or cramp that typically lasts from a few seconds to several minutes. Although symptoms can recur, they are usually short-term and last two to four weeks.

You may get back spasms for a variety of reasons, but most often the spasms are from tweaking your back in some way. Thankfully, there are things you can do to help relieve the pain.

Back Spasms Causes

The exact cause of most back spasms is unknown.

In some cases, they may be the result of an underlying condition such as spasticity, an increased stiffness in the muscles caused by damage to the nerve pathways in the brain or spinal cord.

Most known causes of back spasms are induced by an external force on the muscles that causes stress, strain, or injury to any part of the bones, spinal ligaments, intervertebral discs, facet joints (what connect the bones of the spine), spinal cord, spinal nerves, or paraspinal muscles.

Common culprits include:

  • Lifting something heavy

  • Being overactive

  • Making a sudden movement

  • Sitting for long periods

  • Having poor posture

  • Experiencing stress

Back pain is one of the most common causes for emergency room visits in the U.S. In fact, nearly 90% of adults experience back pain at least once during their lifetime. Of those, 84% have back spasms.

Treatments for Back Spasms

Getting rest and making changes to your activity are usually key in treating pain from back spasms. On top of that, in most instances, back spasms can be treated with non-invasive procedures designed to help ease lower back pain caused by stress and strain.

Non-invasive treatments may include:

Hot or Cold Compress

When there’s stress on the lumbar spine, which is made up of five bones in the lower back, swelling in the surrounding muscles and tissues can lead to pain and spasms. Cold compresses like ice packs can reduce the initial swelling by constricting blood vessels and decreasing circulation. Heat, like in the form of a heating pad, can block the processing of pain by activating the nerve endings that signal to pain receptors.


Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) have been shown to be effective at relieving lower back pain. This could be due to NSAIDs’ anti-inflammatory effect, which pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) do not have.

Muscle Relaxants

Acute pain that is more severe or interferes with quality of life might require muscle relaxants such as baclofen or carisoprodol to, as their name suggests, relax the muscles. Due to their sedation effect, muscle relaxants may also be prescribed in cases when acute back pain disrupts sleep. However, their purpose is for short-term use and should not be taken for more than a few weeks at a time to avoid possible misuse.

Physical Therapy

With the help of a healthcare provider, physical therapy exercises can strengthen core muscles that support the lower back, increase mobility and flexibility, and improve posture to reduce the risk of back spasm recurrence. Specifically, the McKenzie back exercises appear to be beneficial. This approach to physical therapy includes focusing on posture and repeating exercises that target your area of pain.


Acupuncture, the ancient Chinese practice of placing needles in certain points of the body to help with a number of health issues. Pain, including back pain, is one of the main reasons people use acupuncture. The technique is considered one of the first-line treatments for acute back pain.

How Long Does it Take for Back Spasms to Go Away?

Back spasms are described as acute, or short term. Each episode can occur for a few seconds or several minutes and may repeat several times for up to six weeks. Most back spasms disappear on their own in two to four weeks. Under stress and strain, they can reoccur.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Most back spasms are not the result of a serious, underlying condition. However, back pain that persists beyond six weeks after an acute injury should receive medical attention to determine more severe causes, such as herniated disc (ruptured bone disc) and spinal stenosis (pinched nerve near the spinal cord), which can be identified using X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Other signs and symptoms that can indicate the worsening of a medical condition and the need for medical attention include:

  • Less joint flexibility

  • Difficulty moving or getting up

  • Worsened pain

Preventing Back Spasms

When regularly practiced, these prevention methods can help back spasms from recurring:

Engage in Strengthening Exercises

When performed regularly, muscle-strengthening exercises can increase lumbar spine support, which can, in turn, improve flexibility of the muscles and ligaments in the back to increase motion. Aerobic exercises like walking and swimming have also been shown to increase blood flow and nutrients to the soft tissues in the back, which can promote healing and reduce muscle stiffness.

It’s recommended you partake in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week for a noticeable difference.

Practice Good Posture

Research has shown that workers who spend most of their days sitting are more likely to experience lower back pain. This was especially true for those who sat for more than two hours per day and slouched in front of a computer.

This may be because physical inactivity causes the spaces in the spine to narrow, which can compress the spinal cord and nerve roots, resulting in pain. When possible, alternate between standing and sitting, with your back straight and shoulders back.

Lift Responsibly

Heavy lifting and improper technique can contort the lumbar spine and lead to injury. Keeping the back straight, knees slightly bent, and using your legs—not your back—to lift can protect the spine from unnecessary curvature and strain. Avoiding carrying beyond physical capacity can also help prevent overexertion.

Maintain an Optimal Weight

Excess weight, especially around the abdomen, chest, shoulder and nape of the neck, can cause increased stress on the lumbar spine structures (in the lower back) and lead to unnecessary strain.  Strain of the lumbar spine can cause swelling in the surrounding muscles and tissues and lead to pain and spasms.

A complete diet, regular exercise, quality sleep, and stress reduction can help maintain a healthy weight.

A Quick Review

Back spasms occur when muscles sporadically tighten from excessive stress, strain, or pressure on or near the spine. External forces like poor posture, overexertion and stress, or underlying conditions like spinal stenosis can cause back spasms. Although spasm episodes only last between a few seconds and several minutes, they can come and go for up to six weeks. This form of muscle contraction can be alleviated with non-invasive treatments like hot and cold compresses, anti-inflammatory medications, and acupuncture. Doing core strengthening exercises, maintaining a good posture, and maintaining a healthy weight may help prevent muscle spasms from happening. 

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Read the original article on Health.