From weekend warriors to professional athletes, back strain is a common sports injury. Back strain occurs when one of the muscles supporting your spine is twisted, pulled, or torn.
If you strain your back, knowing how to care for it at home can help reduce your pain and recovery time. It’s also essential to know when to see your doctor. If you have more than a mild back strain, you may need professional treatment to promote healing and prevent lasting damage.
Symptoms of back strain
Common symptoms of a back strain include:
- Muscle spasms or cramping
- Muscle weakness or loss of function
Mild back strain can often be treated at home. However, you should call your doctor if you have a back injury that causes any of these symptoms:
- Severe pain or swelling
- Pain that makes it impossible to move or walk more than a few steps
- Pain that interferes with your sleep
- Numbness in the injured area or down your leg
- A lump in the affected area
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Weakness in your leg
You should also contact your doctor if you have a history of previous back injuries or a spinal disorder.
Risk Factors for Back Strain
Knowing the risk factors for back strain can help you be prepared. If you play sports that involve a lot of jumping, such as basketball or volleyball, you’re at high risk of back strain. Returning to a sport after time away also raises your chances of straining your back. For example, it’s not uncommon to get a sore back after your first round of golf or game of softball. Being overweight or out of shape also increases your risk, as does having a history of past back injuries.
In the first 48 hours after you strain your back, the goal of treatment is to decrease pain, swelling, and muscle spasms. Resting, icing the affected area, and taking over-the-counter medications can help.
Cut back on your normal activities and exercise routine for a day or two. Give your back some time to heal.
Put an ice pack on the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times a day. Use a cold pack, or fill a bag with ice and wrap it in a towel. Continue for 48 hours after the injury.
During this period, icing the affected area decreases inflammation by constricting your blood vessels. This limits blood flow to the area. Don’t apply heat during this time. It will have the opposite effect.
Applying pressure also helps reduce swelling. To apply pressure, wrap an elastic bandage around the affected area of your back. It may be easier and less painful to ask someone else to wrap it for you. To avoid cutting off your blood circulation, don’t wrap it too tightly. Loosen the bandage if the pain increases, the wrapped area becomes numb, or you notice swelling below the wrapped area.
An over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drug may help relieve pain and swelling. Examples of NSAIDs include:
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)
After the first 48 hours of first-aid treatment, you can start to resume your normal activities. Applying heat to the affected area can help relieve lingering pain.
When your back is hurting, you may be tempted to stay in bed for a week. But it’s actually better to get back to your normal activities as quickly as possible. Prolonged rest and immobility may delay your recovery.
After the first couple of days of rest, start to resume your normal activities. Don’t push yourself too hard, especially during exercise sessions. Instead, start slow and gradually build up to your previous level of activity.
After the first 48 hours, applying heat to the injured area can help ease pain by relaxing tight muscles. Use a heating pad, heat lamp, or hot compress. Heat dilates your blood vessels, which increases blood flow to the affected area. This promotes healing, as blood delivers nutrients and carries cell debris away from damaged tissues.
In most cases, symptoms of back strain go away completely within two weeks. If your symptoms last for a longer time, or they’re severe, talk with your doctor. They may order imaging tests to help assess your injury, such as an X-ray or CT scan. They may prescribe a splint or brace, medications, physiotherapy, or other treatments. In some cases, they may encourage you to avoid or adapt certain exercises to avoid straining your back.
Ask your doctor about your specific condition, treatment options, and long-term outlook.
Tips to Prevent Back Strain
If you’re at an increased risk of getting back strain, you can take the following steps to avoid straining your back while exercising:
Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard
If you’re out of shape, trying a new activity, or returning to exercise after a break, start slowly and gradually increase your intensity level.
Use proper technique
If you’re trying a new activity, ask a professional trainer or instructor to show you how to do it safely. This is especially important for activities that involve jumping, twisting, or lifting heavy objects.
Warm up at the start of your workout
For example, start by jogging in place for a few minutes. This will help loosen your muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Cool down at the end of your workout
Gradually reduce the speed and intensity of your movements for at least 10 minutes before you stop completely.
Stretch your major muscle groups
Bring each stretch to the point of muscle tension, hold it for 10 to 20 seconds, and then release it using slow and controlled movements.
Following a healthy lifestyle can also help you maintain a healthy weight, strengthen your bones and muscles, and avoid sports-related injuries. Eat a well-balanced diet, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking.