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Muscle Strain and the Back: Getting the Relief You Need

According to the CDC, a quarter of all adults in the United States experience occasional or long-term lower back pain. Pain in that part of the back is often due to muscle strain, sometimes called a pulled muscle.

Neither muscle strains or sprains are particularly serious, but the pain can be quite intense. In many cases, certain home remedies will bring some relief. If they don’t, or if muscle strain in the back starts to interfere with the things you need and want to do, it is time to contact a doctor at La Clinica, S. C. for further treatment.

Types and Causes of Muscle Strain

Muscle strain can happen in any muscle, but it is most common in the back. The lower spine, called the lumbar spine, is supported by a network of muscles in the back, hips, buttocks, and hamstrings. If those muscles are overworked or overstretched, their fibers start to tear, causing strain and pain. A sprain has similar symptoms, but is slightly different than a strain. Sprains result when a ligament that connects bones tears instead of a muscle.

Acute muscle strain comes from a one-time injury or incident. For example, you could hurt your back in a fall, a car accident, or lifting something heavy. Often, patients know right away that they have pulled or strained their back.

Chronic muscle strain is caused by repetitive movements over a longer period of time. Athletes commonly develop muscle strain. For example, a baseball player can develop a strain when they swing a bat over and over. Workers with certain jobs develop back strain over time, too. If a job involves lifting heavy things, or using a shovel or or jackhammer, those motions can create strain on the back. Symptoms may not show up immediately, but instead get worse over time.

Many cases of muscle strain, especially as people age, happen while doing ordinary things. Twisting, bending, or lifting while doing things like cleaning, gardening, or shoveling after a Chicago snow storm can all cause muscle strain. Picking up a toddler, stretching to reach for something under a bed, or walking further than you’re used to can overwork and strain the muscles in the back.

Poor posture, weak stomach and back muscles, or being overweight can contribute to the problem. 

What Does Muscle Strain Feel Like?

Muscle strain is often described as a dull ache that gets sharper with certain movements or positions. For example, it can hurt to twist at the waist, bend over, or even to stand up completely straight. 

Staying in one position too long, such as sitting, standing, or laying down can be uncomfortable and result in stiffness and soreness. The affected area might be swollen or tender to touch. In some cases, there could be cramping and muscle spasms.

Muscle strain in the back typically heals on its own in 1 to 2 weeks. Some cases, however, may need treatment from a doctor or physical therapist and can last up to 4 to 6 weeks.  

Pain from muscle strain usually stays in one area, although some people might complain of sore hips or buttocks too. Since all of the muscles are connected, this is not unusual. If the pain extends beyond the knees, however, it could be more than simply a strain.

Pain all the way down the legs, numbness, or tingling could be a more serious problem like a herniated disc. Bladder or bowel problems along with the pain could be a sign of nerve damage. If any of these things happen, or if the pain intensifies or lasts longer than several weeks, see a doctor immediately. 

Diagnosing Muscle Strain in the Back

There is no specific test to find out if you have muscle strain. It does not show up on x-rays or an MRI. But if you have back pain, especially after falling, getting in a car crash, or doing something strenuous, there is a good chance it is muscle strain. That is, assuming the pain is no worse than described above. You can try some home remedies or make an appointment with a doctor. 

A doctor will use the following things to diagnose muscle strain:

  • The location and intensity of the pain
  • What the patient was doing that could have overworked or overused the muscles
  • The range of motion and flexibility (for example, how far the patient can twist to each side or bend over)
  • The patient’s overall health and fitness
  • The patient’s medical history and any underlying conditions
  • A physical exam where the doctor will feel the area for swelling and tenderness

In most cases, the doctor will not order an x-ray or MRI, unless they suspect there is something more seriously wrong. For example, after slipping on an icy sidewalk, there is the possibility of a herniated disc or a bone fracture. 

Treatment for Muscle Strain at Home and at La Clinica

Treating muscle strain in the back should be gradual and gentle. An aggressive chiropractic adjustment, for instance, is not recommended. It will not help and can in fact make things worse.

The following remedies can help and can be done at home:

  • Rest and movement can both be helpful. But too much bed rest can increase stiffness and too much activity can further stress the muscles. Instead, get moderate exercise but modify or discontinue the action(s) that caused the muscle strain. 
  • Icing the area can reduce swelling and ease the pain.
  • A heating pad will increase circulation and relax the muscles.
  • Try over-the-counter pain medications (acetaminophen) or anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, naproxen).

If these basic treatment methods do not work, a doctor or physical therapist can provide further recommendations, prescriptions, and therapies:

  • Muscle relaxants can offer relief, especially for back spasms.
  • Adding the support of a back brace or belt when doing activities like lifting.
  • Physical therapy exercises that gently stretch and strengthen the affected muscles.
  • Massage therapy to relax the muscles.
  • An overall fitness plan to prevent future injuries or strain.

Help for Muscle Strain and the Back in the Chicago Area

Luckily, muscle strain is usually not a serious problem. But it can cause a good amount of pain and take a while to heal. Since it can impact day-to-day life by making ordinary activities uncomfortable, it is best to start treating it as soon as possible. 

La Clinica, S.C. has several locations throughout Chicagoland. When home remedies fail to give you the relief for your muscle strain that you need, our physicians and physical therapists are ready to help heal.