Lower back spasms can happen suddenly, causing intense and even debilitating pain. Often caused by a recent physical injury, they are more likely to occur when a person is pregnant, dehydrated, or has a sedentary lifestyle that leads to weaker back muscles.
In this article, we look at the various long- and short-term treatments for lower back spasms, including home remedies, stretches, and how to prevent spasms from occurring.
What do lower back spasms feel like?
Lower back spasms cause tension and pain in the affected area.
Lower back spasms happen when the muscles tense up and contract. The feeling ranges from mildly annoying to intensely painful.
People usually feel muscle spasms in a specific muscle in the lower back. However, the pain may radiate to other areas and cause tension in nearby muscles. Some people who experience back pain also develop hip or leg pain.
Some symptoms of lower back spasms include:
- tension in the lower back
- trouble moving after bending or picking something up
- sudden, intense pain in the lower back
- chronic pain in the lower back
- weakness in the lower back, or in nearby muscles, such as in the hips
- a cramping sensation in the back that comes and goes
People with lower back spasms often find that their pain gets worse when they do certain things, such as sitting or standing for long periods.
Most lower back spasms fall into one of two categories:
- Acute lower back spasms. These spasms happen suddenly, often while lifting something or changing position. Acute spasms may cause intense pain or make movement difficult.
- Chronic lower back spasms. Chronic spasms occur more regularly and may not seem linked to a specific injury. Some people develop chronic lower back spasms after a back injury.
Immediate relief for lower back spasms
The pain of an acute, sudden back spasm can be intense. Likewise, chronic lower back spasms can make it difficult to work or relax.
The following strategies may help to relieve the pain when it comes on quickly. These include:
Firm pressure on the affected muscle may help reduce tension and stop the spasm.
To soothe a muscle spasm, press on the affected area for 30–60 seconds, then rub the surrounding area in a circular motion.
Firm massage may be uncomfortable, but should not be painful. If you feel a pulse on the area you are massaging, do not apply pressure.
Heat or ice
Both heat and ice can relieve the pain of a muscle spasm. Both treatments can reduce inflammation and ease muscle tension. Alternating hot and cold packs can be particularly helpful.
Try applying a hot and then cold pad for 20 minutes at a time, with a 20-minute break in between. A hot water bottle and an ice pack should be effective.
Do not apply very hot or cold packs to the skin. Instead, wrap them in a towel or cloth before pressing them against the back.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, will not offer instant relief, but they can help slow the spasm within 30–60 minutes.
A doctor can prescribe muscle relaxants when people have extreme spasms that are visible and prominent. People should only use muscle relaxants for up to 72 hours.
Water and electrolytes
Dehydration can cause muscle spasms, or make existing spasms worse. Continue drinking water, or consider switching to an electrolyte drink.
Use a foam roller
Many people use foam rollers to loosen muscle tension or tightness after exercise. They may also help to relieve muscle spasms in the back.
Always speak to a doctor before using a foam roller, as misusing it could cause back injuries.
Foam rollers are available to purchase in fitness stores or online.
Stretches for lower back spasms
Performing the Child's Pose can help to reduce muscle tension in the lower back.
Stretching reduces muscle tension and can stop muscle spasms. Many people experiencing sudden spasms are reluctant to move, but simply getting up and walking may help.
Some simple stretches for lower back spasms include:
- Child's Pose. For this yoga pose, kneel on the ground with your knees apart. Stretch up and then fold forward, bringing your chest down to your thighs. Stretch your arms forward in front of your head, with palms downs down and elbows resting on the floor.
- Hip lifts. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the ground. Place your hands by your side. Gently raise your hips a couple of inches off the ground and hold the position. Repeat 5–10 times.
- Cat-Cow Pose. Get on all fours on the floor with your knees under your hips and your hands flat on the ground in line with your shoulders. Take a deep breath and arch your back while extending your head back. Then exhale and round your back while pushing your chin toward your chest. Repeat 5–10 times.
Some people find that experimenting with different stretches or that rolling the painful area on a foam roller offers a better stretch.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommend that people avoid prescription drugs, especially opioids, for lower back pain unless other remedies have failed.
A doctor may prescribe muscle relaxants for people to use when chronic back spasms occur.
The AAFP suggest the following long-term treatments for lower back spasms:
- spinal manipulation, such as chiropractic care
- rehabilitation, such as exercise or physical therapy
- mindfulness-based stress reduction
- Tai Chi
- laser therapy
A person might need to try several treatments or combine multiple treatments to get the best outcome. If a doctor diagnoses an underlying medical condition, medication for that condition may help.
Lifestyle changes, such as exercising more and avoiding extended periods spent sitting may increase the effectiveness of any medication.
Preventing lower back spasms
Maintaining good posture during the day will help to protect the lower back from spasms.
When a person experiences one muscle spasm, they may be more likely to experience another. Maintain good back health to reduce future spasms.
Use the following methods to protect the lower back:
- maintain good posture throughout the day
- keep up a good sitting posture when spending long times at a desk
- use a medium-softness mattress
- lift heavy objects with the legs, not the back
A doctor can help diagnose the cause of lower back spasms. See a doctor within a few days if the spasm gets worse or does not disappear.
A doctor may conduct a physical exam, ask questions about medical history and when the pain began, ask about past pain, and do imaging tests such as X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to look at the muscles and spine.
People may mistake other forms of lower back pain for back spasms. When lower back spasms last longer than a few days, or when they go away and come back, it may be because of a chronic medical condition such as:
- problems with the discs that cushion the spinal column
- osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
- narrowing of the spinal column
- a bone fracture
Acute lower back pain — the intense kind that appears suddenly — almost always goes away on its own without treatment. It is more difficult to treat chronic lower back pain, and this often requires a multifaceted approach.
Talk to a doctor to find out the best ways to manage acute and chronic muscle spasms.