What are Back Strains & Sprains?

A back strain refers to damage affecting muscles or tendons. Tendons are resilient, fibrous tissues that attach muscles to bones. In the case of a back strain, the muscles and tendons supporting the spine become twisted, pulled, or torn. A back sprain involves the stretching or tearing of ligaments. Ligaments are strong, fibrous tissues that connect bones at a joint, providing stability and preventing excessive movement of the joint.

Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms of a back strain or sprain often include pain that intensifies with movement. You might experience muscle cramping or spasms, which are sudden, involuntary muscle contractions. Also, there may be a noticeable decrease in the function and range of motion of the affected joint, making it difficult to walk, bend forward or sideways, or stand up straight. In some instances, you may even feel a pop or tear at the moment the injury occurs.

Causes of Back Strains & Sprains

A back strain can occur from twisting or pulling a muscle or tendon, often due to improper lifting techniques or overexerting the back muscles. Over time, repeated stress and overuse of these muscles and tendons can lead to chronic strains. On the other hand, back sprains typically result from falls, sudden twists, or impacts that force a joint out of its normal position, stretching ligaments beyond its usual range of motion.

Several factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing a back strain or sprain. Excessive curvature of the lower back, being overweight, having weak back or abdominal muscles, or tight hamstrings can all contribute to a higher risk. Participating in sports that involve significant pushing and pulling, like weightlifting and football, also further increases the chance of sustaining a lower back injury.

Prevention Methods

While it's impossible to completely prevent back injuries, here are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of sprains and strains.

  • Healthy Diet: Eating a balanced diet helps keep your bones and muscles strong.
  • Maintain a Healthy Weight: Keeping your weight in check reduces stress on the structures of your lower back.
  • Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular exercise, including stretching, helps keep your joints flexible and your muscles in good condition.
  • Prevent Falls: Practice safety measures to avoid falls by wearing properly fitting shoes and keeping stairs and walkways clear of clutter.
  • Good Body Mechanics: Use proper body mechanics when sitting, standing, and lifting. Keep your back straight and shoulders back, sit with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, avoid overreaching and twisting, and bend your knees while using your leg muscles to lift.

Quit Smoking: Stopping smoking improves blood flow to the muscles, as nicotine can interfere with circulation.

Back Strains & Sprains Treatment Options

Non-Surgical – The primary goal in the initial phase of treatment is to alleviate pain and muscle spasms. This may involve resting and applying ice packs and compression for the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can also help reduce pain and swelling. After the first 24 to 48 hours, it is recommended to gradually resume normal activities as much as possible. Prolonged bed rest or immobility can extend symptoms and delay the healing process.

Surgical – The primary goal of surgery is to address any structural issues causing pain and instability in the spine. Procedures can include repairing torn ligaments or tendons, removing damaged disc material, or fusing vertebrae to provide stability. Surgery is typically recommended only after all other treatment options have been exhausted and if the symptoms significantly impact daily life and mobility. As with any surgical procedure, the risks and benefits should be thoroughly discussed with a healthcare professional.

Physical Therapy – Physical therapy involves guided therapeutic exercises designed to strengthen the muscles in the lower back and improve the condition of the spinal tissues and joints. The goals of physical therapy, both short-term and long-term, typically include reducing painful symptoms in the lower back and legs, enhancing back function to allow for more independent daily activities, increasing spinal flexibility and range of motion, and developing a maintenance program to prevent future back issues.

Exercises for Back Strains & Sprains

When dealing with a back sprain or strain, incorporating specific exercises can aid in recovery and strengthen the back muscles. Here are some detailed exercises that can help.

Pelvic Tilts

  – Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

  – Tighten your abdominal muscles and press your lower back into the floor.

  – Hold for 5-10 seconds, then relax.

  – Repeat 10-15 times.

Cat-Cow Stretch

  – Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position.

  – Arch your back by pulling your belly button up towards your spine.

  – Hold for a few seconds, then slowly let your belly sink towards the floor while lifting your head and tailbone.

  – Repeat 10-15 times.

Child’s Pose

  – Kneel on the floor with your big toes touching and knees apart.

  – Sit back on your heels and reach your arms forward, lowering your chest towards the floor.

  – Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then relax.

  – Repeat 3-5 times.


  – Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

  – Tighten your abdominal muscles and lift your hips towards the ceiling, forming a straight line from your knees to shoulders.

  – Hold for 5-10 seconds, then slowly lower your hips back down.

  – Repeat 10-15 times.

Knee-to-Chest Stretch

  – Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

  – Bring one knee up towards your chest, holding it with both hands.

  – Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, then return to the starting position.

  – Repeat with the other leg.

  – Do 2-3 sets on each side.

Our team at Hicksville Physical Therapy in Nassau County is trained and ready to help you begin your recovery through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement. Our goal is to help you get back to your normal life as quickly and painlessly as possible. Give us a call at (516) 916-7081 for more information or to schedule your free consultation.

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