Back Muscle Pain

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Woman experiencing low back pain, possibly due to a strained muscle

Pain from an injured back muscle is an experience that many of us have to go through at some point. Back muscle injuries are normally muscle strains. The resulting pain can range from a mild ache to one that is intense and crippling.

However, the good news is that this pain typically starts to recede  within anywhere from a couple of hours to days. Home treatment including possibly a short period of bed rest is usually adequate to resolve the problem. Physical therapy can help in preparing to resume regular activities.

There are rarely long term consequences to this injury provided appropriate treatment steps are taken.

In this article,  we describe the distinguishing characteristics of this pain in as much detail as possible. We also describe the additional symptoms you may experience. We hope that this information will help you to recognize this pain if and when it happens to you. We will then suggest an appropriate treatment plan for back muscle pain.


If you are not sure of the cause of the back pain you are experiencing, we strongly suggest getting medical advice. Back pain can have many causes, some of which are quite serious. Examples of non muscle related causes are herniated disks and spinal stenosis.. A more comprehensive description of the possible causes of  back pain can be found here.

The possible consequences of not correctly identifying the cause of your back pain are therefore quite severe. If the treatments suggested below do not relieve your pain, you should see a doctor right away for a formal diagnosis.

Typical Symptoms Of A Strained Back Muscle

The characteristics of back muscle pain are typically as follows:

  • It tends to be a dull and achy pain. If the pain is sharp or tingling, you should suspect another problem such as a pinched or irritated nerve root;
  • Back muscle pain will tend to get worse when you make certain types of movement. For example, it may tend to get more severe when you arise from a seated position;
  • Back muscle pain generally tends to recede when you are sitting down or lying in bed;
  • It also tends to be localized, i.e. concentrated in a particular area. Pain from other conditions like herniated disks may spread to your buttocks or even travel down your legs;
  • The painful area of your back may also feel “tender to the touch”. Moreover, you may also have swelling in the same area. Once again, these symptoms will tend to be focused on a particular area of your back. If they “radiate” to other areas  (legs, buttocks or arms) the problem may not be related to a muscle injury;
  • Back muscle pain may be accompanied by painful muscle spasms;
  • You will normally be able to identify the specific time at which your back muscle pain begins. It can usually be associated with a specific event or activity such as lifting something heavy;
  • Back pain due to injured muscles tends to recede over a few weeks, except for an occasional flare up. It is not chronic in nature.


Typical activities that could lead to an injured back muscle and the resultant pain are:

  • Lifting a heavy object, especially if you twist the spine or bend your back while doing so;
  • Experiencing a blow to your back from a fall or collision. Car accidents typically can cause impacts to the back that can produce back muscle pain. Collisions while playing sports like football are another. This is particularly the case if your muscles are under developed, cold or stiff (from lack of stretching activity);
  • Performing repetitive movements that place stress on the back muscles.Swinging a golf club or baseball bat  are typical examples of this. Again, this is most likely to happen when your back muscles are not properly conditioned, cold or unstretched;
  • Walking or standing with poor posture such as slouching forward. This places a lot of stress on the lower back over time and can eventually lead to a muscle injury;
  • Starting a new activity such as a sport that places unaccustomed stress on the back muscles.

This is only a partial list of the potential causes. However, it includes many of the most typical ones.

Risk Factors

The risk of a back muscle injury and subsequent pain is heightened by factors such as:

  • Being obese, which places extra stress on your back muscles;
  • Smoking;
  • Limited back range of motion (due to under developed back muscles, for example).

Diagnosing A Back Muscle Strain

Most doctors will be able to diagnose a back strain based on your medical history and a physical exam.

The physical examination will include testing for back range of motion and flexibility. Your doctor will need to rule out other possible causes such as compressed nerve roots. This is typically accomplished by feeling along the spine to detect anything unusual. Nerve root causes can also be tested for by using a leg raise test.

In rare circumstances, your doctor may request an imaging study such as an MRI or X Ray. These can be helpful in ruling out non muscle related causes of back pain such as a herniated disk.

Treating Back Muscle Pain

Once your doctor concludes that your back pain is muscle related, he or she will recommend a treatment plan. As we have indicated above, it will usually be based on home treatment and be non invasive.

  • You will probably be advised to take a break from activities that may stress your back muscles. Heavy lifting or sports activities are examples of the activities to be put on hold;
  • For additional protection of the injured muscles, you may be asked to consider wearing a back brace;
  • A short period of bed rest may be recommended if the pain is very severe. However, this should last for no more than 1-2 days. A longer period of bed rest may weaken the back muscles and increase the risk of another strain in the future;
  • Your doctor may recommend that you apply a cold compress or ice pack to the painful area. Recommended frequency may be every 2-3 hours and for periods of 20 minutes at a time. This will reduce blood flow to the injured muscles and help to reduce pain and swelling;
  • Over the counter pain medicine such as Tylenol may be recommended for additional pain relief. Anti inflammation drugs (e.g. Naproxen)  may instead be used to control both pain and inflammation;
  • Once pain and swelling have eased, you can start using a heating pad instead of the ice pack. This will increase the blood supply to injured muscles and promote healing;
  • Muscle relaxant medication may be prescribed to control any muscle spasms you may be experiencing;
  • Once your pain and swelling have eased, your doctor may refer you for a physical therapy program for your back muscles. The program will include stretching and strengthening exercises for these muscles. It will help to reduce muscle tension and the risk of another strain after you resume regular activities.

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