What are back spasms?
A back spasm is a condition in the low back when, for any number of reasons, the muscles that surround the low back tighten up, causing pain and limited mobility. What most of us experience when we label something a spasm is prolonged, guarding(contraction) of the muscles surrounding the spine.
How do we get back spasms?
Some common reasons include an awkward twist or 'catch' of the spine, prolonged poor posture, sudden quick, unexpected movement, lifting a heavy object awkwardly or carrying a heavy object and having it suddenly shift.
To some degree, muscle guarding in the back is a normal, protective response of the body to help splint to prevent further injury. We do this too, throughout our life, when we wrap a sprained joint or put a cast on a broken bone. It’s the body’s natural way to create a splint or brace for an injured area.
Which muscles get tight?
There are multiple layers of muscle to the spine that can contribute to the spasms. The outer, superficial layer of muscles, are really muscles that move our arms and legs. These muscles originate on or around the spine and then go on to attach to arms or legs to help create movement. A good example of this type of muscle is the lattissumus dorsi(lats), the muscles along the side of our rib cage that help us to do pull ups.
The deeper layer of muscles attach intimately to the spine and are concerned with both moving and stabilizing the spine. The lumbar multifidus is a good example of this type of muscle(highlighted in the picture below).
Can physical therapy help with back spasms?
The first step in evaluating this condition is to determine the cause of the guarding. We need to make sure there is nothing more serious going on such as a disc herniation, fracture of the bones of the spine, or any excessive movement, aka instability, of the spine that caused the muscles to spasms.
Once these more serious conditions have been ruled out the primary focus can then switch to the muscles because if left untreated these muscles can become significant sources of pain and movement compensation. From this point it’s a matter of getting the muscles to relax through a variety of ways:
- gentle motion
- manual therapy
- dry needling
- corrective exercise
- training to move your body in a way that promotes healing and restoration of efficient movement.
There is often an underlying trigger or dysfunction leading to the guarding, once that can be treated/removed the guarding often goes away.
Won't spasms and muscle pulls just go away on their own?
Back spasms may improve on their own in time but it’s important to still seek treatment for a couple of reasons.
There’s some good research that demonstrates following initial bouts of low back pain, some of those deep stabilizing muscles that attach intimately to the spine become inhibited, or shut off, and do not spontaneously recover. This means that while the pain may have subsided, full control and strength in the spine have not, thus leading to increased risk of recurrence or new injury to the low back.
The other main reason is to get an evaluation of your body and how you move. It is possible there was some type of driving force that led to the injury. Perhaps an inefficient work station, restricted movement or muscle weakness that led to increased strain on the spine. By addressing these dysfunctions, if they are there, you can reduce risk of re-injury to the spine and regain your quality of life.