Muscle Problems and Low Back Pain

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on February 25, 2024
3 min read

Most low back pain is caused by muscle strain or a sprain. A strain is when your muscle fibers are stretched. A sprain is when your ligaments (bands of tissue that hold your bones together) are stretched or torn.

If you have a sprain, you might have noticed a “pop” sound when you injured yourself.           

Muscle strains and sprains are usually caused by:

  • Overusing your back by repeatedly lifting something or lifting something that’s too heavy
  • Bending, twisting, or moving suddenly or in a way that you don’t normally move
  • Being in poor physical shape

If your back and abdominal muscles are weak, it’s easier for you to strain or sprain your back doing everyday activities.

Strains and sprains cause the muscles and tissue in your back to become swollen and inflamed. You might also have:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Stiffness
  • Pain in your back and buttocks

If your lower back hurts, it can be hard to do everyday activities. You also might notice that the pain gets worse when you move. If your back bothers you for more than 2 weeks, see your doctor. Also pay a visit if:

  • Your back pain is from a new injury.
  • It comes with a fever.
  • You have bladder or bowel problems because of it.
  • It’s really severe and doesn’t get better after rest.
  • It spreads down your legs or causes numbness and tingling in your legs.
  • You lose weight because of it.

It’s also worth telling your doctor if you’re over 50 and:

  • Haven’t had back pain before
  • Have a history of cancer or osteoporosis
  • Use drugs or alcohol a lot

There’s a lot you can do to feel better while your body heals. To get relief:

Apply heat and cold to your lower back. Heating pads or cold packs can ease pain. Start with cold for about 48 hours, then switch to heat. Don’t put a heating pad or cold pack right on your skin or leave it on for more than 20 minutes.

Use over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. They can make you feel better, but don’t use them for more than 10 days without talking with your doctor.

Move gently. You may need to take it easy for the first day or two after you notice pain. But don’t stay inactive for too long. Avoiding movement for a long time can actually make low back pain worse. It can make you more stiff and make your muscles weaker. Gentle movement (like walking, carefully stretching, or doing yoga) helps blood flow to your back. It also builds strength, which can lower your odds of more back problems.

Ask your doctor about physical therapy, especially if your back pain is severe or you aren’t sure how to move or exercise safely.

For many people, their back pain keeps coming back. But there’s a lot you can do to lower your odds of it returning. And if it does, these tips can make it less severe:  

Don’t slouch. Your spine should be neutral when you’re sitting or standing. A neutral spine is in a straight line from your head to tailbone without being exaggerated. Over-curving your lower back can make it hurt.

Exercise regularly. It can make your back, abdomen, and hamstrings stronger. That helps keep your back pain-free. Aim for a mix of cardio exercise like walking or biking, strengthening exercises (such as weights or Pilates), and stretching.

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight strains your lower back. It can also add to joint problems that can cause pain there.

Be careful when picking up heavy objects. Always lift from your knees, not your lower back. Your stomach muscles should be pulled in and your head should be in line with your back, rather than pushed forward or arched backward.