Combating Back Spasms

Calendar March 3, 2014
Combating Back Spasms

By: Leslie Fossey, Marketing Director, Azalea Orthopedics
Featured in Tyler Today 

Recently, I got a call from a good friend who is an avid racquetball player. Earlier that morning he had been playing a rough game of racquetball and dove for the perfect shot.  When he landed, pain shot across his back and this true athlete had to be carried off the court. Wow, in just a split second he was taken down by a tiny ball.

Believe it or not back spasms are one of the most common athletic injuries.  Capable of knocking even the most elite athlete completely out of action for weeks.  My friend was a collegiate racquetball player and is in great physical shape.

Usually, the muscles of the back are what’s injured or inflamed and – in most cases – spasms prey on the muscles in the lower back, rather than the upper back.  Sometimes however, the spine itself, including the thin cartilaginous discs between the spinal vertebrae and the ligaments which connect the vertebrae, can be the source of difficulty.

With my friend, the quick, forceful twisting of the high impact game was all it took to set this spasm into motion. Muscle spasms like this can be caused by a blow to the back (hard basketball floor), changing directions while running, or even prolonged sitting and standing with poor posture.

Not to pick on my very athletic friend, but studies show a link between flexion of the back and spasms. These studies suggest that athletes with poorly balanced core strength (i.e., greater strength in the abs, compared with their lower back muscles), are more prone to lower back spasms. Superior strength in the abs tends to put the back in a chronically flexed position, which consequently places unusual strain on the lower back muscles.  This forces the lower back muscles to try and pull the spine back into its normal configuration at the same time as they are stretched out because of the abnormal flexion.  He is going to kill me if he reads this!

Dr. Jerry Schwarzbach, PM & R physician from Azalea Orthopedics explains the main symptoms of back spasms include severe pain with or without motion, significant discomfort in the back upon movement of the legs or arms, and/or pain associated with rotation of the spine. Such symptoms are usually accompanied by a lack of mobility of the spine.

If you have been unfortunate enough to injure your back like my friend, doctors suggest that one of the first things you should do is apply ice to the injury site. You should keep the ice on the site of the injury for about 12 minutes at a time, with 20-minute ‘recoveries’ between applications. As an amateur who works for orthopedists I did know enough to share this ice treatment. But I advised my friend to head to the Urgent Care if it worsened. He did.

“Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed by your doctor to control the inflammation at the spasm site and reduce pain. Your doctor might also prescribe muscle relaxants that can ease the spasm and decrease pain and increase mobility in the back.  Which are good things of course – as long as an individual does not attempt to return too quickly to normal activity.  Quick returns might further injure the problem area,” says Dr. Schwarzbach.

Dr. Schwarzbach says that the duration of back spasms depend on the severity of the injury, the amount of inflammation at the site of injury and, of course, the success of the rehabilitation program. “Always bear in mind that you should be symptom-free before you return to full participation in your sport. This means that you should be able to perform all of the skills and basic movements of your activity with no significant pain,” explains Dr. Schwarzbach.  “Obviously, a too-early return to activity can lead to re-injury and an intensification of back spasms.”

As in most things, Prevention is key:

Back spasms can be prevented by strengthening the muscles of the back, by improving and balancing core strength and coordination and by increasing the flexibility of the back and lower extremities (if the lower back is tight and inflexible, ‘microtears’ of lower back muscles probably occur more readily in response to sudden movement). Exercises for increasing the strength and functional flexibility of the low back are important.

Dr. Schwarzbach does add a little encouragement, saying that even though this sort of pain can be scary, most recover within seven to ten days.  Good news for my fanatical racquetball friend – Eric.

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