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How Can Tight Muscles Result In Back Pain?

By Last updated on September 28th, 2022September 28th, 2022No Comments

Tensing muscles are the body’s way to prevent further damage and signal to us that we should take steps to help these muscles loosen up. If the necessary precautions aren’t taken, the condition of these muscles can worsen and lead to more serious issues.

These issues can impact our ability to move and cause chronic pain throughout the body, including the lower back. Back muscle tension expresses itself throughout our lower body and can even impact the muscles of the pelvis, hips, and upper legs.

Often, tight lower back muscles come with a range of symptoms such as spasms, cramps, stiffness, and pain. These pains can range from constant, minor aches, to full-on incapacitating discomfort.

Tight back muscles can stem from a range of possible causal factors. Strenuous bouts of physical activity, dehydration, awkward posture, or a poor mattress can all impact how tight our lower back muscles are and may cause the symptoms mentioned above.

While it is normal to feel tension after such activities, if it does not subside within a few days, it is important to take precautionary measures to ensure good muscular health.

Muscle Tension and Pain

Muscle tissue is made of cells that can contract and expand in order to produce movement throughout the body. The cells which make up muscle tissue are typically long and slender, leading them to be known as “muscle fibers”. These muscle fibers are well supplied with blood vessels which keep them oxygenated and healthy.

Along with the network which supplies blood and oxygen to these tissues, they are also connected to and controlled by the nervous system which sends electrical impulses to produce contractions when we need to move.

In a similar sense, nerves found within the muscles send diagnostic signals to the brain which give it an idea of the condition these muscles are in. When these nerves sense any sign of damage or tension, they send impulses to the brain which create a pain response within the specific area.

If the muscles are dehydrated, overused, or suffer an acute injury, they tense up to prevent damage to these underlying structures. This is the reason tense muscles create pain. 

Relieving Back Tension at Home

Relieving Back Tension at Home

A variety of muscle issues stem from a lack of muscular endurance. The lower back muscles are especially susceptible to these types of issues as they are often untrained or too weak. These muscles must be ready to contract and expand repeatedly throughout the day, especially given physically demanding jobs or recreational activities.

The benefit to these is that they can all be performed in the comfort of one’s own home, without the added cost of an expensive doctor’s visit. If these treatments do not provide the necessary relief, it may be time to consult a physician to examine for deeper issues.

At-Home Stretches

Spending a few minutes each day stretching these muscles and holding those positions can help strengthen the muscle fibers therein and help expand the endurance of these muscles over long periods of use.

Popular stretches for lower back muscles include:

  • Prayer pose
    • A popular move in yoga, this position stretches tight muscles throughout the lower back and can be especially helpful as soon as one climbs out of bed.
    • With the knees to the floor and the buttocks resting on the feet, stretch the upper body forward and extend the arms as far ahead as possible. Hold this pose for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat in intervals of 5 for the greatest effect.
  • Pelvic thrust
    • A move used for accessing the deepest muscles of the lower back, pelvic thrust can help increase blood flow to these muscles and make them more stable for longer periods of time.
    • With the knees tilted and feet and back flat on the floor, tilt the lower back and pelvis upward and hold this pose for up to 30 seconds or until the muscles tire. Release and repeat in intervals of 5.
  • Knee-to-chest curls
    • This exercise helps loosen the muscles in the upper legs, hips, and pelvis in order to provide better support for the muscles of the lower back.
    • With the body laid flat on the floor, pull one leg towards the chest, gripping the outer thigh or shin with the knee bent. Bring your inner thigh as close to the chest as possible, hold for 15 seconds, deepen the stretch a bit further, hold for another 15 seconds, then let go. Repeat in intervals of 5.
  • Lateral leg lifts
    • This exercise has an effect on the hip abductor muscles. These muscles help to keep the pelvis stable and reduce back pain. These muscles must be kept strong because they help a person maintain proper mobility and balance.
    • Lie down on one side with your legs together, knee-to-knee. Raise the upper leg above the ground as high as comfortably possible, maintaining it straight and stretched. Maintain this position for 1-2 seconds then bring the leg back down to your lower leg. Do this 10 more times. Flip over onto your other side and lift the opposite leg. On each side, do 3 sets total.
  • Cat stretches
    • The cat stretch can help relieve muscular stress, extend the back, and strengthen it.
    • Kneel on the ground with your knees hip-width apart and then also drop to your hands. Lift the top of your back as high as you can while bringing your pelvis inward. Allow the muscles to slowly relax and the abdomen to sink downward. Hold for 30 seconds before returning to your original starting position. Do this 5 times.
  • Supermans
    • Powerful back extensors are required to maintain good posture. On both sides, these muscles run parallel to the spine. Weakness in the back extensors might jeopardize spinal and pelvic support.
    • Lie flat on the ground, face down, with your legs held together and stretched out and your arms in front of you reaching as far out as possible. Raise your feet and hands to a height of about 6-10 inches above the floor. Keep your head straight and your focus on the ground to avoid neck damage. Extend your feet and hands as far as they will go. Hold the position for 10-15 seconds before dropping back down flat on the ground. Do 10 repetitions at least twice a day.

These stretches help not only loosen the muscle fibers in the lower back but over time, they can add supportive muscle tissue to these areas, lessening the load the current lower back muscles have to bear.

Stretching these muscles is an important part of keeping healthy blood flow in these areas as well as increasing the amount of muscle tissue therein. For many suffering from lower back pain and tense muscles, this may not only provide immediate relief from a flare-up but may also provide prolonged benefits that prevent such breakouts.

At-Home Physical Therapies

Physical therapy is simply an umbrella term for treatment by physical means. Massage, hot/cold therapy, and exercise are all valuable techniques for conquering lower back tension.

Self-massage may be difficult to perform in the lower back, so a partner is advised. Simple kneading of the lower back will suffice in providing temporary relief for tense lower back muscles. Applying topical ointments during the massage may boost the effects of both for relieving any pain caused.

Hot/cold therapy is simply the act of applying heat to relax the muscles in an area followed by a cold treatment such as an icepack to compress and numb these muscles. This act of relaxation, constriction, and numbness helps pull the lower back muscles out of their tense state slowly, so as not to shock the body and damage it further.

Over-the-Counter Solutions to Back Tension

Alongside stretching, regular use of over-the-counter medications has been shown to help alleviate lower back tension and symptoms. From topical ointments to low-dose medication, there are several options a person may choose when dealing with their lower back tension.

  • Topical ointments
    • ICY HOT and Vick’s are two variations on the same treatment. These topical ointments often contain a mix of menthol, aspirin, and lidocaine which provide a cooling sensation, warming sensation, or both. These treatments may be enough to relax the muscles, relieve tension and eliminate pain.
  • Ibuprofen, naproxen, & acetaminophen

When to See a Doctor and What to Expect?

If at-home treatments don’t seem to be helping, if episodes of lower back pain last longer than a few hours, or if back pain becomes much more prevalent, it may be time to consult a doctor about deeper issues within the lower back.

Some tension is normal, for any muscle in the body, and especially after long bouts of physical exertion. Tension is the body’s natural defense to prevent further damage to the various muscles in the body. It’s only when these episodes of pain from tension begin to impact one’s daily life that one should seek out professional help.

Medical History

If muscle tension in the lower back is starting to impact an individual’s capacity to perform their day-to-day tasks, it typically means there is a deeper issue within the structures of these muscles.

Doctors will usually begin a consultation with a dive into the patient’s medical history. 

Has there been acute damage to the lower back in the patient’s past? Does the patient’s family have a history of lower back complications? Have there been any signs of a degenerative illness forming? 

Answering these questions will help doctors determine where to begin their physical examinations and what to look for.

Physical Examination

Whether or not a potential causal factor was identified, doctors will almost always follow up the medical history analysis with a physical examination. Techniques such as palpation where doctors apply pressure to specific trigger points while the patient is in a specific pose, can help doctors determine where the issue is and even what type of issue it may be (soft tissue damage, muscle damage, cartilage breakdown, etc.)

Medical Imaging

MRIs, CT scans, and X-rays are used to give doctors an image of the different structures within the lower back. Muscle health, tendon and ligament structure, cartilage stability, and bone health can all be examined using these techniques. 

All of these images can give doctors a clue in determining what is causing the muscles in the lower back to tense up and whether it is a symptom of something deeper.

Diagnosis

Chronic muscle tension can be a sign of several deeper issues within the lower back. Arthritis, acute trauma (sports injuries or work and home place accidents), or osteoarthritis are some of the most common root causes of chronic lower back tension. These are issues that do not resolve themselves on their own and will typically require some kind of intervention.

If the at-home treatments mentioned above did not provide substantial relief, doctors may prescribe stronger medication or may jump to surgical intervention if the issue is substantial.

While these treatments may be effective, their side-effects – long recovery periods, low success rates, and the abundant issues with regular use of medication – may point patients to seek alternatives.

For those seeking not only relief from their pain but treatment for the underlying issues causing chronic lower back tension, regenerative therapy may be the solution.

Regenerative Therapies

While not a totally new concept, advancements in regenerative sciences have produced new treatments for those suffering from issues due to degenerated tissues. Most clinics offering these treatments typically use two means to achieve their effects – platelet-rich plasma (PRP) or cell-based therapies.

PRP Therapy

Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy uses the growth and healing factors found in a patient’s blood to promote healing in the injury site. The doctor isolates platelets from the patient’s blood plasma, processes and concentrates them, and reinjects them into the area of injury.

Platelets are the body’s natural defense against damage. At the onset of any injury, the platelets release 10 Growth Factors and send chemical signals to attract healing components and help rebuild the damage. They also produce a web-like scaffolding called fibrin that supports the development of new tissues. 

PRP is a popular treatment for orthopedic, spine, and sports-related injuries. The process is performed within 45 minutes and is an outpatient procedure, meaning you can go home right after the treatment. 

Cell-Based Therapies

Cell-based therapies are also known as stem cell therapies. The process extracts the patient’s own cells or “autologous” tissues, processes them, and then reinjects them into the injury site. These cells are typically harvested from the patient’s adipose (fat) tissue or bone marrow. 

When the cells are extracted from the patient’s adipose tissue, the process is called Minimally Manipulate Adipose Tissue (MMAT) transplant. When they are harvested from the bone marrow, it is called Bone Marrow Concentrate (BMAC). 

Both cell-based therapies are performed within 1.5 to 2 hours. Like PRP, they are outpatient procedures. The doctor uses live X-rays (fluoroscopy) and ultrasounds to spot the exact location of the transplant. 

PRP and cell-based therapies are less painful and non-invasive processes with a short recovery time. 

Dr. Pouya Mohajer

Director of Regenerative Interventional Spine Medicine
Board certification in Anesthesiology and Interventional Pain Medicine
Fellowship-trained from Harvard University
UCLA Alumni

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