Chiropractor with 40 years experience tells what to do about low back muscle spasms

Why do I get these back spasms?

Muscle cramps in back – Tight and painful lower back muscles

A muscle spasm or muscle cramp is a spontaneous, uncontrollable and abnormal contraction of a muscle, with either no stimulation to cause it or a rather small one like a shift of body with or a slight twist of the body.  A muscle spasm is sometimes called a “Charlie horse,” and these too can occur as a painful back spasm.

When muscle spasms occur anywhere in the back near the spine (back spasms) or the nerve roots that branch from the spine, it can be very painful.  Probably the most common and most uncomfortable spasm is when it occurs in the lower back muscles.

Back spasms are very common and can become more frequent and intense with age.  Muscle cramps and back spasms usually occur in the lower back area because of greater stress and fatigue of this area of the body.  Spasms of the muscles usually occur after a sudden movement of the back such as bending over or twisting, even if the movement is not forceful; the suddenness seems to a strong factor in triggering the response.  This is especially true after a muscle group has been unused for a while, as with prolonged sitting and then a movement is made to suddenly stand or twist.

Lower back muscle spasms occur during or immediately after prolonged or heavy of  heavy exertion, as when the back muscles are straining for a long time.  This might happen while repeatedly lifting heavy weight at work or home, while exercising or in a strenuous sport activity.  This is especially true if these activities are done while dehydrated, or if the body’s stores of minerals like potassium, sodium, magnesium, or calcium are insufficient for the work being performed.

The stiff back that accompanies back spasms can cause intense pain up or down the back that will make movement rather impossible.  The intense pain of a back spasm can last a few seconds up to several minutes, and then slowly ease with reduced pain.  Many times after such a muscle cramp the muscle will remain sore and deeply painful as though the muscle had been bruised by a severe blow to the body.  After the first wave of back spasms subside, another wave of painful muscle contraction can be just as painful as the first.  These muscle spasms cause severe back pain that will get more intense with any movement of the lower back muscles.  It is instinctive to stop all movement and remain still since any additional movement will aggravate the muscle tightness and increase pain further.

Muscle spasms can affect any muscle, but are most common in the back, calves, feet, and hands. While very painful, they tend to be harmless.  In most cases a muscle spasm is not associated with a disease process or underlying structural disorder.  Rarely is a muscle cramp or spasm a sign of a neurological or muscle disease.

Back spasm causes and risk factors

Spasms happen often when lower back muscles are swollen and tender (inflamed) after prolonged and strenuous use, and especially after these muscles have been strained. Any prolonged effort or force that is great enough to tear small muscles and tendons of the lower back can lead to back spasms later. This muscle and ligament injury is common during any activity that is heavier and more strenuous than a person is accustomed to do, or during sports such as football, weight lifting, basketball, baseball or golf in which pushing or pulling and sudden twisting of the back is involved.

The risk of back spasm is increased in these situations:

  • A pelvis that tips forward more than normal, causing an exaggerated or deep lumbar forward curve (hyperlordosis)
  • Poor posture can cause muscle spasms due to the ongoing and continuous strain of all the spinal muscle to fight gravity to maintain the upright posture. Constant lateral or forward slouching fatigues and strains back muscles until muscle spasms in back eventually occur.
  • Weakness of the back muscles secondary to other problems such as obesity, arthritis, spondylolisthesis, disk rupture, spinal stenosis, or a tumor
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Trauma to the spine, sometimes taking up to several months to of the trauma.
  • Overuse of back muscles
  • Tight hamstring muscles and weak leg muscles
  • Weakness and poor tone of the muscles along the spine and abdomen