There are many different ways you can injure your back, from strains that heal quickly to permanent injuries that lead to severe chronic pain.

What Are Strains and Sprains?

Pain from a hard day at work, a sudden movement, or an injury can often be sustained from a strain or sprain of the muscles and ligaments. Most of the stress associated with bending, twisting, and lifting heavy objects is concentrated at the bottom of the spinal column, and this part of the back is particularly susceptible to injury, especially in individuals with weak muscles if they lead a sedentary lifestyle.

How Do Sprains and Strains Happen?

A back strain usually occurs when the muscles surrounding the spine stretch too far, lift too much weight, or move in such a way that they sustain very small tears. As a result of the tearing of the muscles and ligaments, there is usually a microscopic amount of bleeding into the muscle, which results in swelling and painful muscle spasms. Often, the muscles that are injured will be tender to the touch. Pain and spasms are the body's way of telling you that a muscle has been injured and needs to be protected from further use. As a result, you should avoid using the injured muscles during this phase of acute pain, and help them recover by resting, applying hot and/or cold packs, and possibly obtaining a gentle massage to help ease the spasms.

The actual damage that is done when you suffer a strained back can vary widely. The muscles that support and move the spinal column may be injured, the ligaments that connect the vertebral bodies together or form strong capsules around the facet joints might be partially torn, or a mild case of a slipped intervertebral disc may be the source of the pain. In each of these situations, the human body is usually able to heal itself, and will do so without surgery if given the proper treatment.

How Are Strains and Sprains Treated?

Back strains and muscle spasms are very common and unfortunately, there is not an immediate cure for this type of an injury. However, you can manage most back strains effectively with a course of anti-inflammatory medications, a brief period of rest, icing initially, and then a gradual return to normal activities. A physical therapy program that includes stretching and strengthening exercises can help you heal and can also teach you how avoid injuries in the future. Use of a TENS (transcutaneous electrical neurostimulation) machine may also be of benefit. Most of these treatments are directed towards reducing the muscle spasms and pain, so that you’re able to take part in your normal daily activities with a minimal amount of discomfort.

If you have a mild amount of pain in your back and you feel like you may have suffered a sprain or a strain, non-surgical treatments can help your back to heal. However, you should be aware of a few warning signs that indicate that you should see a doctor about your back pain.

These include:

  • Weakness in the muscles of your 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 legs, especially when it is worse with sneezing, coughing, or sitting down
  • Pain that awakens you at night, or is worse when lying down
  • Pain that is associated with fevers
  • Numbness in the buttocks, around the anus or genital area
  • Difficulty starting your urinary stream, not being able to feel your urinary stream or passing small amounts only

What if My Pain Continues Long After the Injury or Trauma?

Some injuries or trauma, such as falling down the stairs or slipping, can sometimes lead to pain that persists for several months—chronic pain. When conservative therapies like medication and physical therapy don't help to relieve the pain, there are other treatment options to consider, such as back surgery and chronic pain therapies. Talk to your doctor if your pain doesn’t seem to go away.

What Are Ligament Injuries?

Tendons are the connections between muscles and bones. Ligaments surround joints and are gristle-like tissue that provide support. When you overstretch a muscle in your back or tear a ligament, this can cause lumbosacral strains or sprains. When this happens, a spasm immobilizes the muscles in the injured area, acting as a splint to protect the ligaments and joints from further damage.

Usually, ligament injuries occur from a traumatic event, and depending on the severity of the injury, they can take from six weeks to a full year to heal. Many things can happen to a ligament upon injury. The ligament can be strained or sprained, it can tear, or it can break altogether. Treatments for these various types of injuries are different.

The ligaments that control your back joints can be damaged by an accidental fall, twist, or slip, much like a sprain can damage the ligaments in your ankle. A sprained back comes from stretched and damaged pelvic ligaments. The cause of back sprain is very similar to the cause of ankle sprain, and the treatment and recovery process can and should be the same as well. Firm support for the pelvic ligaments will help to protect them from further strain while they repair and become strong again.

How Do Back Ligament Injuries Happen?

Poor posture can cause major ligament damage. It is tiring to remain standing for a long period of time in situations such as waiting in line, standing up at a party, and shopping. Without even noticing, many people will compensate for this fatigue by slumping over. When we do that, the entire weight of our body begins pulling against the ligaments in the pelvis and lower back. Years of this can take a toll and cause these ligaments to become stretched and weakened so they cannot properly control our joints. This can cause discomfort and even pain from the simple strain of standing straight.

Work situations are also a common culprit when it comes to ligament strain in the back. Lifting, bending, and twisting keep our backs under constant or repeated strain. When ligaments become over-stretched, they can no longer hold the back joints in proper position and a serious back-sprain condition can result.

Sudden traumatic ligament injuries can occur in falls, accidents or sporting injuries.

How Can I Prevent Back Ligament Injuries?

Sports activities are a primary cause of ligament injury and back sprain. Warming up and stretching are good ways to condition and prepare tendons and ligaments for activity. While engaging in sports, be mindful of protecting your joints and practicing proper technique to keep from injuring your back.

Weight is another contributor to ligament strain in the back. Every extra pound we carry around adds to the stress on our backs, particularly extra weight in the abdominal area. This type of weight causes abnormal posture or a swayback to compensate for the extra baggage in front. This also puts added stress on facet joints and discs. Aerobic exercises that burn fat, strength exercises that build muscle, and exercises like yoga, which concentrate on building a strong body core and increasing flexibility, are all helpful in getting your weight under control.

Learn about spinal fractures, a specific type of injury/trauma.