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A back spasm is a tight or twitching muscle located anywhere in the back. They are extremely common and may develop from overuse, problems with the spine, or seemingly nothing at all. The pain from a back spasm can be a mild inconvenience, or it can be severe and interfere with daily functioning.

On their own, back spasms are not usually considered serious, although they can signal a bigger problem.

Symptoms of Back Spasm

The main symptom of a back spasm is pain, which can be mild or severe. The area will usually feel tense. Sometimes a back spasm can be seen, either because the muscle is so tight that it is distorted, or because it visibly twitches. It may also feel hard or tender to the touch.

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Causes of Back Spasm

Lifting heavy objects, twisting the back suddenly, sleeping in an awkward position, or any injury to the muscles or ligaments of the back can cause back spasms. They can develop without a specific injury, simply due to repeated strain, especially in people who are out of shape or carrying excess weight.

Spinal problems such as a herniated disc or degenerative disc disease may also cause back spasms.

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At-Home Treatment

Back spasms caused by an injury usually get better in a couple of weeks with proper at-home care. Experts recommend taking over-the-counter pain relievers and applying heat to the area but caution against too much bed rest. Light walking and gentle movement speed healing, while bed rest decreases blood flow and prolongs recovery.

Stretching the affected area can also help relieve pain.

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When to See a Doctor

It is best to make a doctor’s appointment if the pain from a back spasm is severe, causes weakness or numbness in any limb, interferes with sleep, or lasts longer than about two weeks. In those cases, at-home treatment might not be enough.

Signs of a possible emergency include fever in addition to the spasms or a loss of bladder or bowel control. When in doubt, see a doctor.

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Medical Treatment

To evaluate a back spasm, a doctor will check the patient’s reflexes, test for limb weakness, and examine the painful area. If there are reasons to suspect an underlying spinal condition, they might order an X-ray or MRI.

In addition to simple at-home care, doctors might recommend physical therapy, or prescribe muscle relaxant medication, cortisone injections, anti-inflammatories, or even short-term opioid treatment.

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Alternative Treatments

Alternative treatments that may help treat back spasms include acupuncture, acupressure, chiropractic adjustments, and massage therapy. Acupuncture can relieve pain, and acupressure can target the affected muscle directly and encourage it to relax. If the back spasm is caused by poor posture or misalignment, chiropractic care can address the root cause. Massage therapy can help relieve back spasms caused by overwork.

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Complications

The main complication of back spasms is chronic pain. The pain can make the spasm worse, which in turn makes the pain worse, and so on. Because of this cycle, it is important to treat the pain caused by a muscle spasm rather than just pushing through it.

Female massage therapist massaging patient's back aldomurillo / Getty Images

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Prognosis

The prognosis for a back spasm depends on its cause. If overuse or a sprain or strain is the cause, the spasm will likely within two weeks with gentle movement, stretching, heat, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. If the back spasm is caused by a herniated disc, recovery may take four weeks or more.

Some causes of back spasms, like osteoarthritis, are chronic and require lifelong observation and care.

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Treatment for Chronic Back Spasm

Many medications used to treat back spasms have long-term side effects, so people with chronic issues may choose to investigate other treatments.

Mindfulness practices like meditation and tai chi can help with pain management. Anti-inflammatory diets, nerve blocks, and nerve ablation are all options that may help to address the root cause of chronic back spasms.

woman sitting on a yoga mat and meditating alone in her home PeopleImages / Getty Images

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Prevention

The best way to prevent back spasms is to keep the muscles of the back strong through low-impact exercises like walking and through back-strengthening exercises. Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding smoking can also help.

To prevent injury and unnecessary back strain, it’s important to stretch regularly, use proper technique when lifting anything, and maintain good posture.

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.