Back Sprains and Strains

Sprains and strains are a common cause of back pain. If you’ve ever felt the pain of straining your back, you know that it can severely limit your daily activities. In fact, most of us will experience this type of pain at some point in our lives; back pain from these types of injuries are the among most common ailment physicians see.

Back sprains and strains are injuries to the soft tissues of your back – muscles, tendons and ligaments. These injuries most often occur in the lumbar spine (lower back) area because that is the part of our back that does the most work – it supports most of our weight, allows us to twist and bend, etc. Unlike conditions like herniated discs, spondylosis, spinal stenosis and other degenerative spine issues, back sprains and strains are generally the result of a single action or injury rather than developing over time.

Sprains vs. strains: what’s the difference?

Sprains and strains often get lumped together in discussions about back pain causes, but are they the same thing? In a word, no; the two injuries are similar in nature but affect different tissues in the back. Tendons attach muscle to bones, and ligaments attach bones to other bones. Back strains are injuries in which the muscles or tendons (the tough bands of tissue that hold your muscles to your bones) in your back are injured. Back sprains, on the other hand, involve your ligaments, the bands of tissue that hold your joints together. If you sprain your back, it means that one of the ligaments in your back is torn or stretched past its normal range of motion.

Although they are different injuries, the treatment plan for sprains and strains are likely to be identical.

How can I treat my sprain or strain?

If your pain is severe enough, you should see a physician to rule out any disorder that may be more serious than a simple sprain or strain. However, for the majority of people with back sprain or strain injuries, a conservative two-fold treatment approach should bring limited recovery within a day or two and a complete recovery within two to three weeks. If your pain persists longer than that, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

The first step in treating these injuries is to minimize pain and the risk of muscle spasms. Rest the injury and use cold packs to reduce swelling and inflammation. Placing pressure on the injury might also help during the first 24 to 48 hours, as will over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen.

Once the pain has subsided (usually within one to two days), try to gradually reintroduce gentle movement and activity. Over-resting may result in your muscles and soft tissues tightening up, which could prolong the injury. Try simple, easy stretches in addition to walking, swimming and other low-impact activities that will allow you to flex and exercise the injured muscles without overtaxing them. Not only is the exercise good for keeping the back loose and free, but it also helps improve circulation so your body can speed healing and pump out toxins.