Back Spasm

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Introduction

What is a back spasm?

A back spasm is a sudden and involuntary contraction, or uncontrollable tightening, of a muscle in response to strain, overuse, weakness, or muscle pain related to injury or a disorder. Back spasms often occur near the spinal cord or near the nerve roots that lead in and out of the spinal cord. This can put pressure on one of these sensitive nerves, causing quite severe pain.

It is common for muscle spasms to occur when you are exerting a lot of energy or are straining, such as while performing heavy lifting, working out, or engaging in a strenuous sports activity. You are especially prone to muscle spasms if you are doing any of these activities when you have not hydrated yourself sufficiently first or if your stores of potassium or calcium are low.

Some spasms may be due to other disorders or the outside irritation of a nerve connected to that particular muscle. For example, a herniated disc often presses on spinal nerves and causes pain and spasm, while with spinal stenosis, the spinal cord is compressed because of a narrowing of either the spinal canal or the openings through which nerves extend away from the spinal column. When these hollow spaces narrow (a process called stenosis), pressure can be put on nearby nerves.

If your back spasm is due to spinal stenosis or herniated disc, spinalcord compression can lead to serious injury to various nerves in the body and this damage can become permanent, even after relieving that pressure. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms of nerve compression, such as loss of sensation in the limbs or shoulders; a complete loss of balance; or loss of bladder or bowel control, especially in combination with weakness in your legs. Also seek immediate care for serious symptoms, such as abnormal sensations or sudden weakness or numbness on one side of your body, paralysis, and changes in level of consciousness.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for spinal stenosis or a herniated disc but symptoms recur or are persistent.If your back spasm is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with a back spasm?

Back spasm may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the back may also involve other body systems.

Musculoskeletal symptoms that may occur along with a back spasm

Back spasm may accompany other symptoms affecting the musculoskeletal system including:

  • Backache
  • Buttock or hip pain
  • Curvature of the spine
  • “Foot drop” (feeling of the foot slapping the ground; caused by leg weakness)
  • Muscle weakness or strain
  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Pain, numbness or tingling in one leg or buttock
  • Shoulder or arm pain
  • Stiffness in the spine

Neurologic symptoms that may occur along with a back spasm

Back spasm may accompany symptoms related to the nervous system including:

  • Headache, particularly in the back of the head
  • Nerve problems that cause pain, numbness or tingling in an arm, buttock, shoulder or leg
  • Sciatica (a shooting pain down the full extent of the back of one leg)

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, back spasm may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have back spasm along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Abnormal sensations, numbness, or weakness on one side of the body
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Loss of sensation in a limb or limbs
  • Muscle weakness in the arms or legs
Causes

What causes a back spasm?

It is common for muscle spasms to occur when you are exerting a lot of energy or straining, such as while performing heavy lifting, working out, or engaging in a strenuous sports activity. You are especially prone to muscle spasms if you are doing any of these activities when you have not hydrated yourself sufficiently first, if your stores of potassium or calcium are low, or if you have other conditions that make your muscles vulnerable.

Fitness deficiency causes of a back spasm

Certain aspects of your physical conditioning can make you more prone to muscle spasms and include:

  • Dehydration
  • Low blood mineral levels, such as potassium and calcium
  • Tightness in the tendons that run down the back of the legs (the hamstrings)
  • Weak or tight back muscles
  • Weak stomach muscles

Pathologic causes of a back spasm

Back spasms can be a response to pain from another existing condition. Some spasms may be due to specific disorders or to pressure on either the spinal cord or other nerves extending from the spinal cord. Disorders that can cause back spasms include:

  • Arthritis in your spine
  • Curvature of the spine, such as lordosis or scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine)
  • Herniated disc
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
  • Spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis (defects in the vertebral column or backbone)

Serious causes of a back spasm

In some cases, back spasm may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a back spasm

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your back spasm including:

  • How long have you had these spasms?
  • Where exactly do you feel them?
  • Do you experience any tingling, numbness, or loss of sensation in any part of your body?
  • Have you experienced episodes of weakness in any of your muscles?
  • How is your balance? Any trouble with coordination?
  • Have you had any episodes of loss of bowel or bladder control?
  • Have you had a stiff neck or stiffness in your spine?
  • Have you had any hip or buttock pain, or a feeling of pain shooting down the back of your leg?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of a back spasm?

Because a back spasm can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Eventual reduced flexibility or mobility
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Permanent nerve damage or disability
  • Permanent or chronic pain
  • Progressive pain, weakness, and loss of muscle function
  • Saddle anesthesia (permanent loss of sensation in the inner thighs, back of legs, and rectal area)
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Nov 19
  1. Back Spasm. Cedars-Sinai. http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/Patients/Health-Conditions/Back-Spasm.aspx
  2. NINDS back pain information page. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Back-Pain-Information-Page
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