I’m actually lying down on my side typing this. That’s because my back is in spasm. I mean, full, big, huge dinosaur sized spasms. (ok ok, exaggeration but that’s what it feels like!). It was hurting when I woke up this morning and then I spent the day at a conference in a really uncomfortable chair. The pain worsened all day long and by the time I got home, it was in full spasm.
Now, obviously I am not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet, but after 17 years of chronic pain following a car accident, I’ve learned a few things about how to deal with it.
Here are my best strategies for how to treat back spasms:
- Some experts suggested to me that I use ice on my back for the first 72 hours after my back goes into spasm and then use heat after that but what works best for me is to alternate ice and heat.So, I would begin by putting ice on my back for 15-30 minutes (depending on my current tolerance level). Then I would rest for 15-30 minutes with nothing on my back. Next comes 15-30 minutes of heat. Then nothing for 15-30 minutes. Back to the ice and just keep repeating the cycle for as long as possible. Personally, I would start with ice only and see if that works for you at the beginning and if not, you might want to give the alternating idea a try. Another option some physiotherapists advise is to use ice before doing any stretching and then heat after.
- When it comes to using ice and heat, please remember to put a cloth between you and the ice pack/heating pad to protect your skin. Sometimes when my back is in spasm, it seems to reduce the feeling in my back a bit so I either get someone else to check the temperature of the heating pad to make sure it’s not on too high or I test it on a part of my body that has more feeling first. Moist heat works the best – you can buy heating pads that deliver that type of heat or you can use one of those “rice” bags that you heat up in your microwave.
- Lying on my side with a pillow between my knees and a couple more behind my back to provide lumbar support can provide some relief. I find it helpful to lie on one side for a while, get up and gently move around a bit to keep the muscles from stiffening up, and then lie down on the other side.
- Lying on my back on the floor with my bottom right up against a chair, my knees bent, and my legs from the knee down on the seat of the chair can also help. This is usually something that needs to wait for some improvement in my back to occur first as lying on my back when it’s in full spasm can actually add to the pain. If you find that having the lower portion of your legs and feet raised provides some relief but lying on your back on the floor hurts too much, trying lying on your back in bed with some pillows under your knees and feet instead.
- Lying on my side, curled up in the fetal position hugging a pillow sometimes helps stretch my back out in a different way and can relieve some of the tension causing the spasms.
- Pressure might help. Some like to use light pressure from a few fingers but I find that isn’t enough for my back. I curl my hand up into a fist and press that into the spot where the spasm is occurring. Just do this for a few minutes (or seconds – again it’s based on what you can tolerate) and then let it go. Don’t overdo this. You want to start gently and increase pressure gradually. If you can’t reach the spot that hurts, get someone else to apply the pressure or use an object for it. I find putting a pillow there and then leaning against something hard. You might need to experiment to find the item that hits just the right spot. Another way to provide some pressure is through a massage. You can either get someone to give you one or try a self massage following my instructions here.
- Lying down with a pool noodle running down the length of my spine is another strategy I’ve had success with. It helps to stretch and open up your back gently.
- If your fingers, pool noodle, or other items provide too much pressure for your back, try water. The pressure of a shower as it hits your back might be just the ticket. I have a handheld shower so that I can aim it directly at the spot that’s in spasm. This is another place you can use heat or cold in conjunction with the pressure by adjusting the temperature of the water.
- Soak in a tub of warm water and Epsom salts. The warm water doesn’t really need an explanation but the Epsom salts may not be as obvious. They actually can help to relieve stress and soothe your muscles. I take an Epsom salt back at least every other day to help ward off muscle spasms.
- Rest. Ok, here’s the thing – there’s a delicate balance here between resting enough to allow your muscles a bit of time to relax and repair and resting too much so that you cause them to start stiffening up and ultimately make things worse. Bed rest is generally only advised for 1-2 days at the most but if you’re feeling that you need to be on bed rest for any longer than that, you should be checking in with a doctor. He/she will likely work out a plan to give you adequate rest combined with gentle movement.
- Increase your fluids intake. Water helps your muscles repair themselves. Dehydration and lack of electrolytes can cause or make muscle spasms worse.
- Make sure you’re getting enough calcium and potassium. Low levels of these can cause or worsen muscle spasms.
If the pain persists and I’m not finding relief from these ideas, I head to the doctor. There could be an underlying issue present and I want to be sure I’m not doing anything to make it worse. Professional treatments like acupuncture, massage therapy, ultrasound, spray and stretch, and physiotherapy have all provided great results for me and help me limit the use of painkillers. I’ve also had success with a TENS unit – its main purpose is to mask the pain but I find that the stimulation to the affected area can also help the muscles begin to relax. In a severe case, I have also found cortisone shots to be helpful but you should research this carefully and discuss it with your doctor. There are risks and possible complications associated with them.