Back Pain Muscle Spasms

By Sally Ann Quirke, Chartered Physiotherapist | Filed under: Muscle Spasms


Back Muscle Spasms causes and treatments
Back Spams - acute pain and contraction of the muscles

Although a muscle spasm may occur in any muscle of your body - the most common muscle spasms I see related to back conditions are in the lower back, neck, hands, calves and feet. Many cramps and spasms are harmless, but most back pain-related muscle spasms are connected to an underlying muscular or neurological dysfunction.

Types of Back Spasms

Back spasms I treat on a daily basis at my physiotherapy clinic are generally of two types:

  • A immediate result of an injury to the back and neck. These are primary muscle spasms, where your injured muscle goes into spasm to protect itself.
  • Other types I typically see are rapid uncontrolled contractions which happen very suddenly, and my clients tell me they sometimes occur for no apparent reason at all. I commonly call these spasms “secondary muscle spasms” as they are usually a secondary symptom of another underlying injury or condition.

These back-related muscle spasms tend to last for several minutes at a time and then slowly ease, leaving you sore and tender around the area of the muscle spasm, as well as very fearful that this grabbing pain may occur again! There are occasions where the spasm can last for hours – in these situations I generally suggest muscle relaxants to my clients. So, if your spasm does not ease within a few minutes, and the use of heat and positioning is not easing your spasm, then call your doctor who will provide the correct medicine for you.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the causes, symptoms and treatments of muscle spasms in the back…

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Muscle Spasm in Back - Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Common Causes of Muscle Spasms

The most common causes of muscle spasms that I see are:

  1. A sudden fast movement.
  2. Overstretching of a muscle or joint.
  3. Disc disorders.
  4. Neurological conditions.
  5. Overuse and fatigue of the muscle - often due to poor posture.
  6. A protective response from the body.

Symptoms of Back Pain Muscle Spasms.

Each muscle spasm that I see and treat appears to have a character of its own! The way people describe their muscle spasms are varied and many, but the most common consistent symptoms of muscle spasms related to back and neck pain are:

  1. Severe pain.
  2. Tension and tightness in the muscle.
  3. Forward leaning posture.
  4. Inability to move the affected part of the back or neck.
  5. Stress.

These symptoms may vary in severity from person to person and are dependent on the severity and type of the underlying injury.

Muscle Spasms may last for seconds, minutes or longer. If it does not ease within minutes, or re-occurs again, then seek medical examination and intervention to help you understand the reason for this sharp pain. Your body is screaming at you to listen to it!

Treatment of Back Pain Muscle Spasms.

The treatments of back and neck-related muscle spasm available will depend on the cause of your muscle spasm. As with all symptoms of back and neck pain the diagnosis is the most important factor. Once we have the correct diagnosis and reason for your back-related muscle spasm, the treatments that we do will be more effective and lead to a quicker resolution of your pain. Here are some examples:

  • If the cause of your muscle spasm is a tight joint or muscle then the treatment will involve correction of that stiff/tight part through mobilisation and exercise therapy. Without correcting the underlying movement problem the spasm will potentially re-occur.

  • If the cause of your muscle spasm was a result of overstretching the muscle in a sudden movement, then the cause of your spasm is already removed from your body - the treatment is to use heat, ice and gentle movements and you will be back on the road in no time at all.

  • If the cause of your muscle spasm is associated with an underlying disc disorder, or injury, (such as a herniated disc) the disc itself must be addressed and pressure on the disc and its surrounding muscles released. Core back strengthening exercises will be very important in the long term rehabilitation of this presentation to help reduce further episodes of dysfunction and spasm. Pilates is my preferred method.

  • If the cause of your muscle spasm is due to a Neurological condition, for example Multiple-sclerosis, Parkinson’s, or a Stroke - medical expertise is required from a Neurologist. Your doctor or physiotherapist will guide you in that direction for investigation if they are concerned.
However, simple home treatment of muscle spasm that I advise daily is:
  • Get into a position of ease.
  • Use heat on the muscle in spasm.
  • Rest.
  • Take muscle relaxing medication at the early stages if severe.
  • Identify the cause and remove it where possible.
  • Seek advice if it occurred for no known reason, if it last longer than minutes or re-occurs.

Exercises for Back Muscle Spasms.

What exercises can I do to ease my muscle spasm? Is a common question I get asked in my clinic. Again, it’s never a simple answer, as the exercises you do depend so much on the muscle that is in spasm, as well as the causes of the spasm. If your spasm is a result of overstretching the muscle on one occasion and there is no underlying pathology or stiffness to your back or neck, then heat, rest and gentle stretching of the muscle that is in spasm will be effective.

However, more commonly I see that there is an underlying movement dysfunction to the spine anatomy and surrounding muscles which requires more specific correction through mobilisation techniques and stability exercises to correct the problem. In this situation home treatment alone may not suffice as the root of the problem is still there, and as always the root needs to be removed to reduce the likelihood of a re-occurrence of the spasm.

Just to mention - while not back-related - if your cramp is in your calf you can try gently stretching it and holding the stretch for 20-30 seconds. If this helps great - and if it doesn’’t help - stop!

Generally, muscle spasms tend to lead to fear of movement. When you have one your whole body goes into spasm as such, however, remember to move all parts of your body that do not hurt and this should help greatly. If your muscle spasm is not easing quickly or if it re-occurs then seek medical attention. Your body is telling you something, and if you do not understand it clearly seek the help of someone who can help you to achieve that and help you to relieve your spasm.


While the content and materials contained in the articles on this website have been written & researched by Sally Ann Quirke, a professional, practising & fully qualified Chartered Physiotherapist (Physical Therapist) based in Ireland, they are provided for general information and educational purposes only. They do not constitute medical advice on any particular individual situation. Please see your Chartered Physiotherapist or other medical practitioner for full and individual consultation.

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