A pulled back muscle can begin as a sudden, sharp pain when lifting or bending. The pain can also increase gradually, getting worse as the days go by. It’s a common injury, but there’s little comfort in that fact—especially if it stops you from doing the things you enjoy.

We call it a “pulled” muscle, but really it’s a strain—a muscle or tendon injury that happens when the tissue is torn or overstretched.1 Not to be confused with a sprain, which happens when a ligament (a band of tissue that attaches bones, muscles, and organs) is torn or overstretched.2 

The pain from a pulled muscle in the back ranges from minor annoyance to intense pain, and it can take several weeks or, in some cases, a few months to heal.3 Back pain, often due to a pulled muscle, is one of the most common issues health professionals treat.3 In most cases, you can treat and manage symptoms at home using the recovery tips in this article. But if the pain is unbearable or makes it difficult to move, see a doctor.


If you pull a back muscle, it can feel differently depending on where the injury is. The spine is divided into three major sections: the neck (cervical spine), upper back and shoulders (thoracic spine), and lower back (lumbar spine).

With a pulled muscle in the neck, you might feel:3

  • Pain in the neck and upper back area
  • Limited range of motion in the neck
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Pain radiating to the shoulders or arms
  • Headache

Pulled muscles in the shoulders and upper back may cause:4

  • Pain in the area between the spine and shoulder blade
  • Muscle spasms in the upper back
  • Knots and tightness in the upper back/shoulders
  • Pain when moving the shoulders

Lower back pain symptoms include:1

  • Aching and stiffness
  • Pain that worsens with movement
  • Pain that radiates to the hips and legs
  • Limited range of motion
  • Muscle spasms in lower back area
  • Pain when sitting, standing, or walking

Causes and Diagnosis

of the most common causes of pulled back muscles include:

  • Falling, especially if you hit the ground hard or fall in an awkward position. Leave the parkour to the pros.
  • Repetitive movements that stress and irritate the back muscles, including bending, crouching, and reaching. Don’t be a hero trying to get that box off the top shelf; use a stepstool instead.
  • Unsafe lifting, lifting while twisting, or lifting something too heavy for one person. For instance, parents can injure their backs picking up or playing with children. They grow up so fast!
  • Excess weight that puts strain. People who are overweight or pregnant, for example, are more vulnerable to pulled back muscles. Be gentle with your body.
  • A sedentary lifestyle. This may weaken the back, increasing the risk of injuries. Just in case you needed an excuse to get your steps in.
  • Poor posture when sitting or bad form when doing athletic activities. From tech bros to gym bros, no one is immune. Bro.

What You Can Do

No matter where a pulled muscle is in the body, the steps to treat it are generally the same. However, it’s important to talk to a medical professional before treating an injury because symptoms of other injuries—like problems with the cartilage discs between vertebrae or a broken bone—may feel like a strained muscle.1 After talking to your healthcare provider, try the following steps:

1. Chill out.

Cryotherapy, a fancy name for applying cold to injuries, helps reduce inflammation. Inflammation is the main source of pain the first few days after an injury. The faster you can apply cold to a pulled back muscle, the faster you may start to ease pain, control swelling, and start healing. Apply a cold pack for 15–20 minutes as soon as the injury occurs.5 Just so you know, Game Ready is active cryotherapy; its rapidly circulating ice water cools to effectively reduce edema (swelling), muscle spasms, and pain.6

2. Press the issue.

Using compression bandages or using an active compression system may reduce swelling and edema so the damaged tissues can repair themselves more quickly. Game Ready gently squeezes and releases, mimicking natural muscle contractions to remove swelling and stimulate blood flow.7

3. Slow your roll.

Right after the injury, you should limit activity and give your body time to rest. Avoid movements that increase pain.5 After the initial pain eases up, returning to your previous level of activity may prevent the muscles from growing weak.8

4. Get your (gentle) stretch on.

According to Kojo Hamilton, MD, gentle stretching may improve tissue healing by bringing more blood flow to the injured area.9 Applying heat to the area before stretching may also be beneficial. 

5. Let the pharmacy help.

Pain medications should only be used short term to help ease the pain as you go about your day.5 If you feel you need pain medication, talk to your doctor about what kind of medication you should use. Some medications, called nSAIDs, may temporarily relieve some swelling. Always use medications according to the directions on the bottle!8

6. Come back strong. 

As the pain subsides, try adding strengthening exercises along with gentle stretching. Resting too much and letting muscles grow weaker may slow down your recovery and increase the chances of future injuries.8

7. Call the masseuse. 

You can increase blood flow to the injured tissues with a light massage.1

8. Bring the heat.

After the first few days, alternating cold and heat may help reduce pain and ease stiffness.9 

Game Ready provides both therapeutic cold and active compression to reduce pain and swelling, increase blood flow, and help get you back to your favorite activities.7,10 Find a provider near you and take your recovery to the next level.11



  1. Back Strains and Sprains. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10265-back-strains-and-sprains. (January 23, 2024)
  2. Ligament. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21604-ligament. (February 5, 2024).
  3. Low Back Strain and Sprain. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. https://www.aans.org/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Low-Back-Strain-and-Sprain. (January 23, 2024)
  4. Neck Sprains and Strains. OrthoInfo by American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/neck-sprain/. (January, 27, 2023).
  5. Identifying, Treating, and Preventing Rhomboid Muscle Pain. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/rhomboid-muscle-pain. (January 27, 2023).
  6. Hochberg J. A Randomized Prospective Study to Assess the Efficacy of Two Cold-therapy Treatments Following Carpal Tunnel Release. J Hand Ther.
  7. Airaksinen O, Kolari PJ, Miettinen H. Elastic Bandages and Intermittent Pneumatic Compression for Treatment of Acute Ankle Sprains.
  8. Exercises for Lower Back Muscle Strain. Spine-health by Veritas Health. https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/lower-back-pain/exercises-lower-back-muscle-strain (January 23, 2024.)
  9. Immediate Treatment for a Back Muscle Strain. Spine-health by Veritas Health. https://www.spine-health.com/blog/immediate-treatment-back-muscle-strain. (January 27, 2024)
  10. CoolSystems. 701424 Marketing Requirements Game Ready Wraps. Rev B.
  11. CoolSystems. 702916 Rev A Game Ready Control Unit 550550 Design Validation Report. Valid beyond 02/04/2008.