If you’ve ever hoisted a squirming toddler or forgotten your form during a deadlift, I’ve got a feeling you know what it’s like to pull a back muscle. What we call a “pulled” muscle in the back actually refers to one of two different injuries:

  • A sprain (with a “P”) means the ligaments that hold bones together are torn or stretched. (1)
  • A strain (with a “T”) means the muscles themselves are stretched or torn. (1)

Although these are different injuries, they have a lot in common. Namely, both are painful. Back pain is the second most common complaint to doctors in the U.S. (2), and the lower back is the most frequent source of pain. (3) Strains and sprains can be anywhere from mild to severe, with severe muscle, tendon, or ligament tears requiring surgery to fix.

It figures, then, that the time it takes to “get back” from a pulled back muscle depends on how bad the injury is. Some can be treated at home, but it’s always good to talk to a healthcare provider first to make sure.


Why Me Mine: Pulled Back Muscle Causes and Symptoms

A lot of everyday activities can result in back strain or sprain, such as (4,5): 

  • Twisting your spine or lifting a heavy object with poor form (there’s a reason why they say “lift with your legs, not with your back”)
  • Falling hard on your back
  • Playing sports that require sudden pivots, twisting movements, or pushing/pulling

Some risk factors can also make a back injury more likely, even if you don’t play sports. Weak back muscles or abdominal (belly) muscles can increase risk. So can tight hamstrings or standing and walking with too much curve in your back. Being overweight or obese can also increase risk of a pulled back muscle. If you’re trying to get fit after being inactive for a while, be careful! Going too hard too fast can cause a back injury, too. (5)

A sprain or strain in the back may cause symptoms like (1,5,6):

  • Dull, aching pain
  • Pain when standing, sitting, lifting, or twisting
  • Stiffness in the lower back
  • Muscle spasms
  • Pain that spreads up to your head or neck or down to your hips and thighs


The Long and Winding Road: Pulled Back Muscle Recovery Time

Recovering from a pulled back muscle may take anywhere from a few days to multiple weeks. (6) The worse it is, the longer it will take to heal.

If you’re resting and treating your back as recommended by your doctor, you should start to see decreased pain in 1-2 weeks. (2,3) 

Proper treatment may speed up your recovery. To try and recover as quickly as possible, consider a proactive treatment approach that includes physical therapy and the techniques described below. (2,3,4) 

However, you should see a doctor right away if:

  • The pain doesn’t get better with rest and home treatment
  • You have a fever
  • You can’t sit up, stand, or walk
  • The pain spreads below your knees
  • You have abdominal pain
  • Your legs are weak, numb, or tingly (4,6)


Get Back: Treatment for Pulled Back Muscles

If your back strain or sprain isn’t severe, you can usually treat it at home.


Rest, ice, compression, and elevation is a time-honored way to treat a pulled muscle anywhere in the body. Right after the injury, don’t put more stress on your back; let it be. (7)

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy (PT) is recommended, especially because a physical therapist can show you exercises to strengthen your muscles, help prevent future injuries, and provide access to more advanced treatment, like cold and compression therapy, heat therapy, and contrast therapy (cold and heat). (3) 


Cryotherapy (a.k.a. cold therapy) is proven to reduce the pain and swelling of a pulled back muscle. It might also shorten recovery time. (8) Compression, or pressure, can also reduce swelling. Dig it.


The GAME READY* System

The clinically proven GAME READY* system integrates cold and compression therapies to help reduce pain and edema (swelling) - outperforming traditional RICE methods and other devices. Unlike a bandage, Game Ready uses intermittent compression. Pneumatic compression mimics natural muscle contractions to gently pump away edema and stimulate the flow of oxygenated blood. (9, 10) Plus! Game Ready wraps offer circumferential coverage. Anatomically designed wraps surround the affected body part, increasing surface area and contact for more effective cryotherapy. (11)


Two of Us: Contrast Therapy

Once the inflammation has gone down, it may be safe to start using heat therapy to promote circulation.

However, applying only heat may cause additional swelling, which is why contrast therapy (alternating heat and cold) may be a good treatment choice. (12) The innovative Med4 Elite from Game Ready integrates cold, heat, contrast, and compression therapies like never before, delivering comprehensive, flexible, streamlined, and proven treatment options for different users, injuries, surgeries, and diverse stages of rehabilitation. (13)

Ask your doctor or physical therapist about using Game Ready cold and compression or contrast therapy for a pulled back muscle. 



  1. Low Back Strain and Sprain. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Low-Back-Strain-and-Sprain. Accessed May 2024
  2. Back Strains and Sprains. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10265-back-strains-and-sprains. Accessed May 2024.
  3. El Sayed M, Callahan A. Mechanical Back Strain. StatPearls, National Institutes of Health. Updated August 2023.
  4. Lumbar Strain. Cedars Sinai. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/l/lumbar-strain.html. Accessed May 2024. 
  5. Back Pain. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. National Institutes of Health. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/back-pain. Accessed May 2024.
  6. Back Pain. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20369906. Accessed May 2024.
  7. Sprains, Strains, and Other Soft-Tissue Injuries. OrthoInfo. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/sprains-strains-and-other-soft-tissue-injuries/. Accessed May 2024.
  8. Hubbard T, Aronson S, Denegar C. Does Cryotherapy Hasten Return to Participation? A Systematic Review. Journal of Athletic Training. 2004;39(1):88-94. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC385267/.
  9. Hochberg J. A Randomized Prospective Study to Assess the Efficacy of Two Cold-Therapy Treatments Following Carpal Tunnel Release. J Hand Ther 2001;14:208-215.
  10. Araksainen O, Kolari P, Miettinen H. Elastic Bandages and Intermittent Pneumatic Compression for Treatment of Acute Ankle Sprains. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1990;71:380-383.
  11. Game Ready. Test Report, Thermal Imaging Marketing Comparison. ETR 2712, Rev. A. 2019. 
  12. When to Use Hot and Cold to Treat a Muscle Injury. United Hospital Center Orthopaedics. https://wvorthocenter.com/when-to-use-hot-and-cold-to-treat-a-muscle-injury/
  13. Game Ready. Design Validation Report, Med4 Elite. Doc 704863, Rev. A. 2017.


*Registered Trademark or Trademark of Avanos Medical, Inc., or its affiliates. © 2024 AVNS. All rights reserved.