Back Spasms: What to Know and How to Treat Them

Medically Reviewed By Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
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Back spasms are involuntary muscle contractions in the back. Common causes include dehydration, strain, and exertion. In rare cases, causes can include an underlying spinal condition. A doctor may recommend clinical or at-home treatments to alleviate the pain or address the underlying cause. Some people refer to back spasms as muscle cramps. They can be common and have benign causes, but in some cases there may be an underlying condition at the root of the spasm.

Seek immediate medical care or call 911 for serious symptoms that accompany back spasms, including:

  • loss of sensation or numbness
  • loss of bladder or bowel control
  • fever
  • swelling
  • pain that does not improve

Read on to learn more about back spasms, what they feel like, why they happen, and their treatments.

What is a back spasm?

Person stands in field of flowers holding lower back and hip
Sonya Khegay/Stocksy United

A back spasm is a sudden and involuntary contraction or uncontrollable tightening of a muscle in the back. When this happens, you cannot relax the muscle.

Back spasms occur with a range of intensities. They can involve part of just one muscle or several muscles in a muscle group at once. They can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Back spasms cause varying levels of pain, up to intense, debilitating pain.

Muscle spasms in the back are often harmless and can go away on their own or with at-home treatment. However, severe back spasm symptoms may require attention from a doctor and could indicate the presence of an underlying condition.

Contact your doctor if your back spasms are persistent, accompany other severe symptoms, or cause you concern or difficulty in your daily life.

What does a back spasm feel like?

A back spasm can feel very different from other types of pain.

Cramps or spasms may cause the muscles to feel hard to the touch and even be visibly distorted. You may also be able to see the muscle twitching.

The feeling of a back spasm can range in severity, from causing a slight twitch to debilitating pain.

If you are experiencing a back spasm, you may feel a pulsing sensation, extra tightness, or limited mobility.

What other symptoms might occur with a back spasm?

A back spasm may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder, or condition.

Symptoms that frequently affect the back may also involve other body systems.

Problems with the back can cause other symptoms to appear with back spasms, including:

  • stiffness, sometimes after rest or sleep
  • pain in the back that cause a hot, burning, shooting, or stabbing sensation in one or both legs
  • paresthesia, a tingling or numb feeling also known as pins and needles
  • back pain that varies over time, coming and going
  • pain that alleviates with activity
  • pain that radiates into other areas of the body, such as the buttocks, legs, or hips
  • pain that increases when bending or lifting

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, back spasms may occur with other symptoms that can indicate a serious condition. It is important that a medical professional evaluate you in this situation. 

Seek immediate medical care for anyone experiencing back spasms along with other serious symptoms, including:

  • numbness or tingling
  • severe back pain that does not improve after treatment
  • pain after an injury or fall
  • weakness, pain, or numbness in the legs
  • bowel or bladder changes, incontinence, or difficulty passing urine
  • chest pain
  • swelling or a physical abnormality in the back
  • pain that does not improve after resting or that worsens at night
  • pain that comes from the top of the back between the shoulders, rather than the lower back
  • pain that starts after an accident
  • pain that worsens with exertion, such as when sneezing, coughing, or defecating
  • changes in feeling or sensation around the area
  • fever or chills
  • unintentional or unexplained weight loss
  • pain that awakens you or prevents you from sleeping
  • pain that worsens in certain positions
  • pain that extends to other areas of the body

Why is my back spasming?

The cause of muscle cramps or back spasms is sometimes unknown.

Common causes of back spasms can include both easily treatable physical triggers as well as more serious underlying conditions that need medical intervention.

Some physicians believe cramps can be the result of muscle fatigue, and it is possible for muscle spasms to occur when you strain or exert a lot of energy. This can happen especially if you are performing a physical activity when you have not stretched or hydrated sufficiently first, or if your salt and mineral intake is depleted.

Sometimes, other disorders of the body can cause back spasms. A disorder or source of pain in the spine may cause reflex tightening or spasms.

This can be the result of irritation of an area connected to the muscle. For example, a herniated disc may press on the spinal nerves, causing pain and possibly spasms.

Fitness-related causes of a back spasm

Certain aspects of your bodily condition can make you more prone to muscle spasms. These conditions may include:

  • stiffness in the back
  • inflexibility of muscle tendons and ligaments of the back
  • poor blood flow and nutrient flow to the soft tissues of the back
  • poor core muscular strength
  • dehydration, especially when exercising
  • low levels of minerals or electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, or calcium
  • straining, stretching, or overuse of back muscles
  • muscle fatigue

Pathologic causes of a back spasm

Back spasms can be a response to the effects of another existing condition of the back or other area of the body.

Conditions that can eventually lead to back spasms include:

  • conditions of the nerves and spinal cord, including sciatica, cauda equina syndrome, spinal stenosis, or spondylolisthesis
  • compression of the nerves around the back (for example, from a spinal cord injury or a pinched nerve)
  • inflammation of the spinal nerves
  • infection of the nerves or spinal cord
  • congenital conditions such as spina bifida or skeletal irregularities like scoliosis
  • degenerative problems including intervertebral disc degeneration, spondylosis, and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis
  • injury or sprain to the back or spine
  • compression fractures of the vertebrae
  • a ruptured disc

Conditions that may also cause back pain and spasms but have a root cause stemming from a bodily system apart from the spine include:

Serious causes of back spasms

In some cases, back spasms occur as a sign of a condition that poses a risk of permanent damage or a risk to life. These cases require immediate medical care.

These conditions include:

  • kidney disease
  • infection
  • cancer
  • spinal cord injury

Complications of some diseases that can trigger back spasms can also present a risk to life.

Ways to treat a back spasm at home

You should always communicate with your doctor about severe or prolonged back pain.

In some cases, back spasms can go away on their own, and you may find relief from mild back spasms through at-home treatments.

At-home treatments that may relax affected muscles include:

  • applying heat or cold — for example, placing a hot or cold pack wrapped in a cloth on the affected area
  • massaging the muscles gently
  • increasing fluid intake to treat dehydration
  • stretching by gently holding the muscle in the stretched position until the spasm stops
  • taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that are safe for you, with the guidance of a pharmacist or doctor

You should seek medical help for any muscle spasm that is severe, or for any back spasm that:

  • occurs frequently
  • does not improve after stretching or hydration
  • lasts a long time
  • accompanies swelling, redness, or a feeling of warmth to the area
  • accompanies muscle weakness

If necessary, your doctor will work to find the root cause of the spasms so that they can treat it.

How to prevent back spasms

Prevention for back spasms varies depending on the underlying cause.

If your back spasm is not the result of an underlying condition, trying a combination of lifestyle changes at home may help.

Methods for the prevention of back spasms include:

  • drinking enough water (in line with your daily requirements)
  • stretching, especially before exercise or exertion
  • strengthening abdominal and back muscles
  • exercise
  • learning to lift items correctly and safely
  • eating a diet that includes the recommended levels of nutrients and minerals for you
  • avoiding excessive sedentary activity, such as prolonged sitting or lying down without movement

However, you should consult with your doctor before changing your diet or exercise routine.

For more information on drinking, hydration, and daily requirements for you, read on here.

When should I worry about a back spasm?

Because back spasms can be the result of a serious disease as well as a minor condition, failure to seek treatment could result in complications and permanent damage.

Seek immediate medical help for any severe symptoms, pain that does not improve within a few weeks, pain that worsens, or pain that stops you from doing your daily activities.

Once you receive a diagnosis of the underlying cause, it is important for you to follow the personal treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design.

This may minimize the risk of experiencing potential complications, including:

  • disability
  • chronic pain
  • a physical abnormality
  • neurologic complications that result in either motor or sensory issues
  • bowel or bladder disorders

Diagnosis

To diagnose the cause of back spasms or back pain, your doctor may carry out assessments, including:

  • discussing all symptoms, their duration, relieving factors, location, and type of pain
  • performing a physical exam — for example, gait and skin observations
  • performing neurological examinations to investigate any loss of sensation, reflex changes, limitations of range of motion, or tenderness
  • imaging tests such as MRI or CT scans
  • investigating any other signs or symptoms that may signal a serious underlying cause

Summary

A back spasm is an involuntary contraction or tightening of one or more muscles in the back. Back spasms can be painful and vary in duration, lasting up to several minutes.

Causes of back spasms may be benign and treatable with at-home remedies. Methods such as stretching, regular exercise, hydration, and a balanced diet can both treat and prevent back spasms and pain.

Serious symptoms such as pain that worsens, numbness, changes in sensation, swelling, or fever may accompany back spasms and indicate a condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Contact your doctor right away for any severe symptoms or for symptoms that do not improve with at-home care.

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Medical Reviewer: Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 23
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