Back Strain (Back Sprain) - Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Back PainPulled Back Muscle

The most common back strain symptoms and back sprain treatment options

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 are common. Such a condition is rather frustrating as it prevents you from doing daily activities, walking, and training. In this article, there are some common symptoms and signs of back issues, lower back pain causes, diagnosis process, and treatment options.

Are back strains and back sprains common?

Think you’ve pulled a muscle in your back? Join the club. This back 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.” Moreover, not everyone knows the ways to treat lower back pain caused by a strain and chooses incorrect methods. For example, a person can just lie on a bed for a couple of days wishing for the pain to go away. However, lack of movement can actually slow down the recovery process. So, if you experience any back issues, you should consult a therapist. Back issues are even more common if a person has a sedentary lifestyle and thus has a very low level of physical activity.

In most cases, back pain, just as a headache, doesn't mean there’s a serious disease, but it definitely is uncomfortable. In some rare cases, such pain is a sign of a serious condition.

What are back strain and back sprain?

Many people use sprain and strain synonymously, but a back strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon, and a back sprain is the stretching or tearing of a ligament. But, of course, both terms refer to muscle pain caused by some kind of injury. The back, in general, and especially the lower part of the back, bears a lot of the body's weight.

A tendon is a tough and fibrous band of tissue that connects muscles to bones. They can get torn, pulled and twisted. Ligaments are the fibrous bands of tissue that connect several bones together. They can be stretched and torn. The exact diagnosis, a back strain and a back sprain, can be determined by a doctor after a careful examination.

What are the symptoms of back strains and sprains?

If you think you’ve pulled a back muscle, what should you look for? According to Dr. Chang, signs and lower back strain symptoms can include:

  • Pain that can be characterized as sharp or dull
  • Pain that appears with certain movements or activities
  • Cramping or muscle spasms
  • Redness, swelling and tenderness in the painful area
  • Weakness or tightness in the feet or other areas

Experiencing lower back pain symptoms 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 their muscles warm up and stretch a bit through the day,” he adds.

What are the causes of back sprains and strains?

“Several risk factors can 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.”

Muscle strain can happen suddenly because of an injury or it can develop over time due to overuse and repetitive motions. In the first case, the injury damages a muscle and is identified as acute strain. Such an injury is common after lifting heavy things or after having increased pressure on the spine. The overuse of a muscle causes overstretches or tears, which are especially common in athletes.

Once again, heavy lifting, especially paired with a spine twist or putting an item overhead, are the leading severe back pain causes. Poor posture and weak muscles make you more prone to injuries and increase the chance of having a strain. Not only weakness, but also muscle stiffness can lead to strains, so it is highly important to stretch.

How is back sprains and strains diagnosis performed?

As pain can be a signal of a serious disease, you should make sure to consult a doctor to understand your diagnosis correctly. A physical examination is the first thing performed by a doctor. Physical examination together with review of symptoms and the circumstances of the injury are used to figure out the diagnosis. If your condition is quite serious, for example, you've lost function or experienced weakness, an X-ray can be performed to exclude a herniated disc or broken bones from possible reasons for pain. Remember that establishing a correct diagnosis is very important, as the wrong one can lead to improper treatment. For instance, your back pain can be caused by a fractured disc, which you won’t be able to treat by using cold compress therapy. So, don’t hesitate to book an appointment with your doctor to determine your real diagnosis.

Possible back injury treatment options

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 the signs that indicate a serious issue? “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 back strain treatment works 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. Slowly moving can also help.

So, the first type of lower back injury treatment targets reducing pain and spasms. That's when you can use ice packs and compression with rest to ease the pain. It is very helpful on the first day after a back injury. Among the over-the-counter lower back strain treatment options Dr. Chang mentioned, can be non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. It helps with pain as well as swelling.

Most conditions are easier to be prevented, and back strains and sprains are among such. A balanced diet with enough Calcium and Zinc intake can strengthen bones. Maintaining a healthy weight reduces increased pressure on your back, so you should keep this in mind. Exercising and using the proper technique while exercising can improve your muscles and cut the chance of a back injury. For instance, you can lift things by squatting rather than bending over.