Think you’ve pulled a muscle in your back? Join the club. This injury is one of the most common among adults, according to interventional pain management specialist Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
“Only headaches seem to occur more often on a daily basis to American adults than back pain, which is commonly caused by a pulled muscle, especially in the lower back,” Dr. Chang explains. “Nevertheless, not everyone knows the signs of a pulled back muscle or more serious symptoms that might emerge that should be checked by a doctor.”
Uncomfortable and often inconvenient – who has time for a problematic muscle? – a pulled muscle in the back also goes by another name: a strained muscle. With the back bearing much of the body’s weight and force while you walk, run, bend and lift things, it’s not surprising that pulled muscles can result.
“Several risk factors can also increase the odds you’ll experience a pulled or strained back muscle,” Dr. Chang notes. “These include carrying extra pounds, having weak back and/or abdominal muscles, and curving your lower back excessively. And pulling a back muscle is easy to do – it can happen after a fall or sudden twist or even from using the same muscle for a long time, like when you bend over to weed a garden.”
Symptoms of a pulled back muscle
If you think you’ve pulled a back muscle, what should you look for? According to Dr. Chang, signs and symptoms can include:
- Sharp or dull pain
- Pain with certain movements
- Stiffness or tightness in the pulled muscle and surrounding area
- Muscle spasms
- Tenderness when the muscle is touched
- Swelling in the affected area
- Pain relief when you rest in certain positions
- Pain shooting down the legs, or numbness/weakness in the feet
Experiencing pain while doing specific things – such as bending over, or even standing still – is a key sign you’ve pulled a back muscle, Dr. Chang points out.
“It’s also common for those with a pulled back muscle to wake up to more pain and stiffness that eases when your muscles warm up and stretch a bit through the day,” he adds.
Serious signs and treatment
While the vast majority of pulled back muscles end up being minor problems that don’t last more than a couple of weeks, Dr. Chang recommends staying vigilant for more serious symptoms indicating you may need medical attention.
What are these more serious signs? “If your pain lasts for longer than 2 weeks, that should prompt you to see your doctor,” he advises. “Also, seek immediate care for back pain that’s accompanied by severe abdominal pain, loss of bladder or bowel control, or an unexplained fever.”
If medical attention is needed, your doctor may use X-rays or other imaging scans to determine what’s happening in or near the spinal cord that’s contributing to your symptoms, Dr. Chang says.
For most people with a pulled back muscle, simple treatments work well to ease pain and transition you to moving more with less discomfort. Dr. Chang says these include over-the-counter pain relievers, applying cold or heat and gentle stretches several times a day.