A person may throw out their back due to a muscle strain or spasm, or a slipped or ruptured disk. This injury, which causes pain in the lower back, might happen during physical activity, such as lifting a heavy object or twisting suddenly.
A thrown out back can prevent a person from participating in their normal activities. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), back pain is one of the most common causes of both visits to the doctor’s office and missed days at work.
In most cases, the pain from a thrown out back is acute and will resolve within a few days to a week. Severe strains or injuries involving spinal disks may need medical treatment.
In this article, we examine the symptoms and causes of a thrown out back. We also look at treatment options and prevention measures.
People may experience a thrown out back slightly differently, depending on the severity of the injury.
The symptoms of a thrown out back include:
The most likely cause of throwing out the back is a strained muscle. It is possible to strain the back muscles due to:
- sudden twisting
- poor posture
- attempting to lift objects that are too heavy
In addition to muscle strains, a thrown out back may be the result of damage to other parts of the back, including:
- blood vessels
- other connective tissue
If an injury to any part of the back occurs, a person may feel pain or stiffness that can last for many days. Injuries can be sudden, such as those that occur when a person lifts a heavy object or twists quickly, or they can develop over a long period due to overuse.
According to the NINDS, a person can take some steps at home to help reduce acute back pain, such as:
- Using hot or cold packs: Warmth can relax the muscles, and cold helps prevent and reduce swelling. Both hot and cold packs can help alleviate pain.
- Taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers: Taking analgesics or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), for a short period may reduce pain and swelling.
- Avoiding prolonged bed rest: It is important to keep mobile and do light activity.
- Lightly stretching the back: Gently stretching the muscles, under the direction of a healthcare professional, may help relieve tension.
People should also avoid certain activities if they have thrown out their back. These include:
- activities that involve sudden twists of the back, such as golf
- lifting heavy objects
- exercises that put a strain on the back
If home therapies and methods do not reduce pain, a person should talk to their doctor about other possible treatment options.
To diagnose the cause of a person’s back pain, a doctor will usually ask what happened before the back pain and whether any other symptoms started alongside it. This information can help rule out other issues that may be causing the back pain.
A doctor will also likely perform a physical examination of the back. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, they may then order tests such as:
Imaging technology can help a doctor determine the cause of the pain and whether any other issues are present.
A person may not always be able to manage their symptoms at home.
For those requiring additional treatment, doctors may suggest attending physical therapy or group fitness classes that focus on helping with back pain. They may also refer a person to a specialist, such as an orthopedist, for treatment.
A doctor may prescribe stronger pain relievers for the temporary relief of severe pain. They may also recommend steroid injections at the site of the pain or muscle relaxants.
Although a thrown out back is not always preventable, a person can take steps to help make sure that they do not strain or hurt their back. Some preventive measures include:
- stretching and exercising the back regularly
- practicing good posture
- using ergonomically designed furniture and equipment at work and home
- wearing shoes that fit properly
- sleeping in the fetal position to help reduce strain on the back
- maintaining a moderate weight
- lifting heavy objects from the knees
- getting help with lifting large objects
- quitting smoking or avoiding secondhand smoke
- wearing a brace or back support when lifting weights or moving heavy objects
- avoiding carrying heavy loads in backpacks and other bags that rest on the back
A person should talk to their doctor if they have severe back pain that has not gone away within 2 weeks. They should also speak to their doctor if their back pain is preventing them from performing normal activities.
A doctor may be able to recommend additional treatment options, such as therapies or pain medication, to help the person cope.
A person should see their doctor about back pain as soon as possible if they experience any of the following:
- severe and continuous back pain and fever
- numbness in the genitals or loss of control of either the bladder or bowels
- numbness in one or both of the legs or feet
A thrown out back is often the result of a muscle strain.
A person can throw their back out either with a sudden movement, such as lifting a heavy object, or over time from performing repetitive motions in a job or sport.
A person can take several steps at home to relieve back pain, such as:
- using ice and heat packs
- doing low impact exercises
- taking OTC pain relief
If these are ineffective, a person can talk to their doctor about prescription medications, physical therapies, or seeing a specialist.
Back pain from a thrown out back should go away within 1–2 weeks and should not cause other symptoms. If pain lasts longer or other symptoms are present, a person should talk to their doctor as soon as possible.