September 14, 2021
Clinical contributors to this story
Craig Van Dien, MD contributes to topics such as Physical rehabilitation.
If you’ve ever suffered from back pain, you’re not alone: According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, 75 to 85% of Americans have back pain at some point in their lives.
But knowing what’s causing your pain can be difficult. “The most common complaint is what we characterize as nonspecific low back pain, which means we haven’t identified a specific underlying source for which this person has back pain,” explains Craig Van Dien, MD, sports doctor, physical medicine and rehabilitation at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute. “In most cases it is muscle pain or muscle tension.”
What are the causes of back pain?
Muscle tension or pulled muscle is a common cause of back pain and occurs when you injure the tendon or ligaments by using too much or poorly the back muscles.
Anyone can pull a muscle. Factors that can contribute to the problem include:
- Lack of exercise or no warm-up before exercise
- Excess body weight
- Bad posture
- Sitting for long periods of time
Some health issues can also cause back pain, including:
- A herniated disc that can put pressure on the nerves
- Degenerative disc disease
- Autoimmune and inflammatory diseases
- Osteoporosis or arthritis
- Pancreatitis or kidney stones
- Infections and cancer, in rare cases
Symptoms of back pain
If you have strained a muscle in your back, you may feel a dull ache and stiffness in your back, with a general feeling of achiness. Symptoms include:
- Pain that gets worse when you move, especially when bending or stretching
- Difficulty standing straight
- Swelling or bruising in a specific area
- Sharp or aching pain, usually limited to the lower back and buttocks
- Pain or cramps resembling spasms
To identify the cause of back pain, Dr Van Dien says that the absence of symptoms can also be helpful. “When patients present with back pain and the pain is muscular in origin, this exam is usually devoid of any kind of results suggesting that there is a nerve problem or something more important going on,” he explains.
Symptoms that suggest more serious illness include:
- Fever, chills, or night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- New bowel or bladder problems
- Pain that spreads down the legs
- Pain that lasts more than a few weeks
- Severe pain not relieved by rest
- Weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs
If you have any of these symptoms, it is best to see a doctor as soon as possible. “We don’t want you to ignore these symptoms. It is extremely important to have a doctor evaluate you and rule out any more serious problems, ”explains Dr Van Dien.
How to treat a pulled muscle
Prevention should always be the main objective:
- Maintain strong abdominal and back muscles to help stabilize your spine and prevent strain on your back muscles.
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle, including weight management and low impact aerobic exercise, to build muscle strength and prevent strain.
- Maintain a neutral posture while sitting or standing.
- Use leg muscles instead of back muscles when lifting objects to avoid fatigue and back muscle injury.
“Muscular back pain usually goes away after several weeks of home care,” explains Dr. Van Dien. “Despite the popular belief that you need to rest, early mobilization and walking following acute back strain will help keep muscles relaxed and prevent further strain on your lower back. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs and alternating heat and ice can be helpful for the initial onset of pain. Your doctor may also recommend a course of physiotherapy.
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The material provided by HealthU is intended to be used for general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your doctor for individual care.