A muscle spasm is an involuntary contraction of a muscle that can cause a great deal of pain. Muscle spasms can occur in and of themselves because of an intrinsic issue with the muscle, but more commonly occur because of an underlying condition. For example, there could be some facet joint arthritis and inflammation which can cause the muscles of the back to go into spasm. Other injuries of the back can also cause the muscles of the back to go into spasm.

The muscles spasm is typically treated conservatively with muscle relaxants and exercise therapy. Applying heat therapy using a heat pad may also be helpful to relax the muscles.

The goal of the treatment program is to get the muscle to return back to its resting state and to do so in a conservative manner. There are many treatment options that we can employ to encourage the muscle to do so. First off, we can use muscle relaxants. These are medications which cause the muscle fibers to go into a state of relaxation. Massage therapy often works. We can use ice or heat modalities, which work by different mechanisms. Ice decreases inflammation and heat increases blood flow to the area to try to clear maybe some of the inflammatory process or to actually melt away some of the muscle spasm.

You’ll also want to think that, “Is there an underlying condition causing the spasm?” Perhaps if you try more conservative means — more conservative treatment options and the pain isn’t getting better – if it’s unrelenting – then should we look and dive deeper into perhaps an underlying cause? For this reason, it’s oftentimes important to think of a back spasm as perhaps a shot over the bow; it’s a warning sign that there maybe something else happening. In most cases, it’s probably self-limited and the pain will go away on its own or with conservative treatment, but when the pain doesn’t go away – when it gets worse or when there’s other warning signs, which I’ll discuss in just a brief moment – it’s important perhaps in those cases to go to your healthcare practitioner and get the symptoms looked at.

Some of the warning signs of low back pain that are more of an emergency we’ll say would be if you lose control of your bowel or bladder – this is an emergency. Or perhaps if you have pain that is radiating not only in the back, but down the leg – through the buttock, through the leg, it doesn’t have to go all the way down into the foot – this is a sign that perhaps the nerves of the spine are involved and they’re causing pain that’s shooting down the leg. You could also have numbness or tingling or weakness in the leg, and this is more of a warning sign that could be an emergency and you should seek immediate medical attention.

In This Article:

Dr. Marco Funiciello is a physiatrist with Princeton Spine and Joint Center. He has a decade of clinical experience caring for spine and muscle conditions with non-surgical treatments.

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