The majority of episodes of acute lower back pain are caused by damage to the muscles and/or ligaments in the low back. While a muscle strain doesn’t sound like a serious injury, the resulting lower back pain can be surprisingly severe and is the cause of many emergency room visits each year.
There are two common types of lower back strain:
- A muscle strain happens when the muscle is over-stretched or torn, resulting in damage to the muscle fibers (also called a pulled muscle).
- A lumbar sprain happens when ligaments are stretched too far or torn. Ligaments are very tough, fibrous connecting tissues that connect the muscles to the bones and joints.
For practical purposes, it doesn’t matter if it is a muscle strain or a ligament sprain that is causing the pain, since the treatment and prognosis for both are the same.
When the muscles or ligaments in the low back are strained or torn, the area around the muscles will usually become inflamed. The inflammation leads to back spasm, and it is the back spasm that can cause both severe lower back pain and difficulty moving.
Common Causes of a Pulled Back Muscle
Lower back pain from muscle strain usually is caused by any type of movement that puts undue stress on the lower back. Frequent causes include lifting a heavy object, lifting while twisting, or a sudden movement or fall.
Sports injuries are also a frequent cause of a pulled back muscle, especially with sports that involve twisting (such as golf), or any types of sudden impact or jarring motions.
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Pulled Back Muscle Symptoms
Symptoms may range from a mild ache to sudden debilitating pain. Typical symptoms of a lower back pulled muscle include some combination of the following:
- The pain is usually localized in the lower back, meaning that it doesn’t radiate into the leg (as in sciatica)
- The lower back may be sore upon touch
- Pain usually comes on suddenly
- There may be accompanying muscle spasms
- The patient usually feels better when resting, and may find standing or walking difficult.
The severe back pain may resolve quickly, but a lower level of pain, or intermittent flare-ups of pain, may continue for a few weeks or months.