Muscle spasms, one of the most common causes of back pain and neck pain, often may be resolved with conservative, non-surgical treatment; however, there are a few signs to be aware of that should prompt a call to the doctor.
You’ve just hefted that bag of dog food into the trunk. Or maybe just turned your head to make sure all’s clear before pulling out of the parking lot. Or perhaps just taken a good, long stretch after spending the last 9 hours cramped in coach on an overseas flight. Now waves of uncontrollable muscular pain are gripping your back so tightly you can hardly stand up. Because the muscles that surround and support the spine are among the most powerful and often-used in the body, muscle spasms can be one of the most common – and painful – causes of back pain.
What Is A Muscle Spasm?
One of the body’s natural, protective response mechanisms, a muscle spasm is an involuntary, sustained contraction of the muscle fibers in response to injury or inflammation, either in the muscles themselves or the nerves that serve them. In the back, muscle spasms also may signal injury or damage to an underlying spinal structure such as the vertebrae, discs or ligaments that connect the vertebrae.
Back spasms may occur for a variety of reasons: a sudden or extended trauma to the spine or the muscles and tissue that support it such as a strain or sprain, or some other type of mechanical disorder that may be causing spinal nerve compression or irritation.
What Are The Symptoms Of Muscle Spasm?
The primary symptoms of a muscle spasm typically include acute back pain or neck pain, depending on the location of the underlying injury or condition, accompanied by a sensation of severe muscle tightening, which may occur in “cycles” that last from a few seconds to several minutes.
The pain and stiffness actually serve a two-fold purpose: to signal that something’s wrong and to protect the affected tissues and structures from further injury by limiting motion. Symptoms tend to appear suddenly following physical activity, and usually ease up following a period of rest.
How Are Muscle Spasms Treated?
In many instances, muscle spasms can be resolved within several days or weeks following a conservative course of treatment, provided there are no serious underlying medical or spinal conditions. Contact your doctor immediately if you are experiencing:
- Changes in bowel and/or bladder function, resulting in incontinence or difficulty controlling bowel movements.
- Muscle weakness in your arms or legs; a feeling of instability when you walk or a progressive decrease in the distance that you can walk.
- Pain and numbness that travels down your arms and/or legs, especially when it is worse with sneezing, coughing, or sitting down.
- Pain that worsens when you’re lying down or that keeps you awake at night.
- Pain accompanied by fever, weight loss or other signs of illness.
If none of the above are present, there are some things you can do on your own to both loosen and soothe your painful muscles and reduce the inflammation that’s causing the problem.
Bed Rest Isn't Best. Going about your normal, everyday activities – but perhaps at a slower pace, and definitely avoiding what may have caused your pain in the first place – is a good way to start the healing process. A little "couch time" won't hurt, but light activity speeds recovery, so avoiding lying down for long periods of time.
Cold Compresses. For the first 72 hours immediately following the onset of your muscle spasms, wrap an ice pack, cold gel pad (or a bag of frozen vegetables) in a thin cloth to avoid frostbite, and apply to the affected area for up to 20 minutes several times a day. Ice slows inflammation and swelling, numbs tissue and slows nerve impulses to the injured area. Take care, however, not to ice the area too long – cold therapy sessions longer than 20 minutes could potentially cause muscles to tighten even more or tissues to become more inflamed.
Heat Therapy. After the first three days, you can start using heat to loosen muscle tightness and increase blood flow. Waiting at least 72 hours after your spasms start allows the initial swelling and inflammation to go down, and moist heat is generally preferred to dry because it reduces the potential for dehydration. Good heat sources include a moist heating pad or heat pack, or a warm bath, Jacuzzi or shower.
Anti-Inflammatory Pain Relievers. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen or naproxen sodium, can ease pain, swelling and stiffness. There are a number of over-the-counter and prescription options. Your physician or pharmacist can help you determine which is best for you.
External Bracing. Short-term use of a soft brace or corset can help ease muscle spasms by keeping the inflamed tissues or spinal structures immobilized. Worn properly, a brace can relieve pain and provide warmth, comfort and support (consult with your doctor or pharmacist for proper positioning and fit). But, don't rely on this type of external support too long – allowing it to perform your muscles' job will eventually weaken them, making re-injury easier.
If Conservative Care Doesn’t Help…
If your muscle spasms haven’t subsided and the pain and other discomfort associated with them hasn't improved noticeably after 72 hours of self-care, contact your health care provider, as there may be an underlying medical/spinal condition that needs to be addressed. Therapies that he or she also may recommend for relief of your pain and discomfort include:
Massage Therapy. Massage therapy is the practice of applying pressure or vibration to the soft tissues of the body such as the muscles, connective tissues, tendons, ligaments and joints. Using deep-tissue pressure and/or more superficial stroking motions, it may be used on all or part of the body to loosen and relax the muscles, manage pain, improve circulation and relieve stress and tension.
Physical Therapy. During physical therapy, different treatments such as applications of heat and cold, ultrasound, hydrotherapy and massage are often incorporated to help alleviate muscle pain and stiffness. Ultrasound involves passing a wand over the painful area, transmitting high- or low-frequency sound waves deep into the muscles, warming them and increasing blood circulation. Therapeutic exercise and stretching also may be prescribed to build strength and increase range of motion, as well as teach correct posture and relaxation techniques.
Acupuncture. Acupuncture involves placing very thin stainless steel needles into the skin in certain locations that are thought to correspond to certain organs and anatomic structures deep within the body, including the spine. While the theory behind how acupuncture works has not been validated by modern research, one school of thought is that the needles stimulate pain-suppressing neurotransmitters, reducing inflammation, increasing circulation, reducing muscle tension and ultimately providing pain relief.
Chiropractic Care. Chiropractic care seeks to prevent and treat back pain and other health problems through the correction of misalignments, or subluxations, in the spine through manual spinal adjustment, the key component of chiropractic care. Other chiropractic therapies include muscle stimulation, TENS (transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation), ultrasound and/or ice and heat therapy. Chiropractic care also may incorporate therapeutic exercise, stretching and massage therapy.
To prevent re-injury of your back or neck – and hopefully avoid any recurrence of painful muscle spasms – it's important to build and maintain the strength and flexibility of the muscles, tendons and ligaments that support your back and spine. This can be done through:
- Regular, low impact cardiovascular exercises that don't jar your back and are easy on the joints, such as bicycling, walking or swimming. If exercising outdoors is not option, consider using a treadmill, elliptical trainer or stationary bicycle. These can be found at almost any exercise studio, or you can buy a home version at your local sporting goods store.
- Core strengthening exercises. By conditioning your abdominal and back muscles, you can develop a "natural corset" to support your spine.
- Gentle stretching to improve and maintain flexibility. Stretching also helps maintain good blood flow to the muscles.
Please Note! If you’re experiencing active muscle spasms, please consult with your doctor before engaging in any type of exercise or stretching program, even if you’re already active. When muscles, nerves and other tissues are inflamed and in contraction, or are in the initial stages of recovery, it’s important not to exceed the range of motion they’re prepared to handle because this may cause further injury and/or prolong the healing process.