A pulled muscle in your lower back, upper back, or neck is uncomfortable and can be inconvenient, especially if you are an athlete or lead an active life. Acute pain, unexpected muscle spasms, and the inability to move with full range of motion can significantly impact your daily life and prevent you from doing some of the things you love most.
Recognizing the early signs of a pulled back muscle allows you to treat the injury and potentially prevent it from worsening. Treating a minor injury before it intensifies may save you days or weeks of discomfort and inconvenience.
Common Pulled Back Muscle Symptoms
A pulled back muscle is actually a strained muscle. A strain occurs when the fibers in one or more of the muscles that support the spine are overused or overstretched. This may lead to painful tearing and a long recovery if left untreated.1
Some early symptoms of a pulled back muscle may include2:
- Local swelling
- Muscle spasms
- Tenderness when touched
- Intense or dull pain
- Pain with specific movements
- Tightness or stiffness in the muscles
- Pain relief in resting positions
Pain associated with specific movements, such as standing up or bending over, is a key indicator of a pulled back muscle, so don’t ignore these seemingly minor aches and pains.
Many people with a pulled back muscle feel more pain or stiffness early in the day, and less as the muscles warm up and become more limber.3
Early treatment may help you recover as quickly as possible. But ignoring back pain can slow recovery by delaying appropriate treatment or causing you to do things that worsen the injury.
How to Treat a Pulled Back Muscle
In many cases, a minor back muscle strain can be treated at home or with the help of a physical therapist. If you’re not sure what your injury is or if you are in extreme pain, it’s always a good idea to consult with a physician. If you are noticing the early signs of a pulled back muscle, consider these treatment options4:
Over-the-counter pain medications may treat the minor aches and pains associated with a pulled back muscle. In addition to reducing pain, these treatments may also help reduce inflammation. Because they might cause unwanted side effects, many people choose to use these treatments on a limited basis. If you opt for OTC pain relievers, use them only as directed, and do not use them to do activities that would otherwise be painful.
Applying therapeutic cold to a pulled back muscle may help reduce pain and swelling without the use of medication. Using cold therapy, either in the form of ice packs or with a cold therapy system, may help control the inflammatory process and may help reduce pain.
After the inflammation subsides, you can try applying heat to the area, which may help relieve pain, relax muscles, and promote circulation. Applying heat in the incorrect manner while the inflammatory response is still occurring can actually contribute to increased swelling, so even if heat feels good, don’t start this step too soon in the recovery process.
If you have ongoing problems with pulled back muscles, it’s a good idea to work with a physical therapist, who can show you exercises that can help strengthen muscles and increase range of motion. They can also show you proper form and techniques for avoiding future back injuries.
Therapeutic massage may help relax tight muscles and increase circulation to promote healing. If you feel the early signs of a pulled back muscle, massage may help relieve pain and increase range of motion. Be sure to let your therapist know about any discomfort you feel so they can tailor their treatment accordingly.
Although getting ample rest is important for healing, total inactivity can weaken muscles, cause stiffness, and contribute to a higher risk of injury. Continue to perform light activities that do not cause pain, such as walking, stretching, and light squats. Avoid activities that cause pain, such as lifting or bending, and learn proper form before you resume more strenuous exercise.5
- Muscle strain. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/muscle-strain-a-to-z. Accessed December 2018.
- Pietrangelo A, Cherney K. Muscle strains. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/strains#symptoms. Published January 11, 2018.
- Nall R. What can cause morning back pain?. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324961.php. Published April 12, 2019.
- Low back strain and sprain. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. https://www.aans.org/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Low-Back-Strain-and-Sprain. Accessed May 23, 2019.
- Allen JV. Maintaining fitness—not resting—may be key to recovering from an injury. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/dont-let-an-injury-derail-your-fitness/2016/04/25/66616fb8-ed18-11e5-bc08-3e03a5b41910_story.html?utm_term=.eb901654767c. Published April 25, 2016.