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Male massager doing thoracic evaluation osteopathy procedure to his female client, pushing on her shoulder blades
Back spasms can be compared to a Charley horse in the back. These are a common complaint in doctors’ clinics throughout the country. Spasms can accompany back pain and neck pain, they can be the result of a traumatic event, like a slip and fall accident or an automobile accident. Here is why they occur and what to do about them.
A back spasm is an involuntary and sustained contraction of one or more muscles of the spine. Spasms can occur without pain when the muscle/s shift, and pulse. But it’s when pain accompanies the spasm that it can become an issue that can lead to a chronic condition.
Example: Runners get the feeling of having a Charley horse in the calf muscle. Having a back spasm is the same. Spinal muscle spasms could be an indication of something serious, like a micro tear around a spinal disc that can generate inflammation to cause the muscles to tense up.
However, with most cases, a back muscle spasm is a symptom of a mild muscle injury, like a sprain. It can be hard to diagnose the pathology of a muscle spasm. One theory is that if there is a noxious stimulus coursing through the body, specifically the back, it can disrupt/disturb the muscles. When this happens the muscles brace/bunch up together to protect the spine. Here’s are five muscle spasm types that can cause back and neck pain.
If there is a spasm in the neck, it’s more than likely a contraction of the trapezius muscle. This is the muscle group that runs down the neck into the middle or thoracic spine/back.
Back spasms in the cervical spine could indicate a contraction of the sternocleidomastoid. This is located at the base of the skull on both sides of the head. When these muscles spasm, the pain is usually localized or in one area that leads to muscle irritation. However, if the spasm is a symptom of underlying inflammation or nerve irritation, then the pain could radiate and spread down.
The trapezius starts at the neck to the last vertebra of the thoracic spine or the middle-back. Therefore, a back spasm can affect the neck as well as the middle of the back as well. Spasms in the midback can also result from a contraction of the rhomboid muscle. These connect the shoulder blades to the rib cage and spine.
Because there is less movement in the middle-back, the muscles in this area are less likely to spasm, compared to the cervical/neck area and the lumbar/low area.
Spasms in the lower back occur from a contraction of the erector spinae muscles. These are the large group of stabilizing muscles that are on either side of the spine or the latissimus dorsi. These muscles are commonly referred to as lats. They are one of the largest muscle groups in the body and cover the middle and lower back.
Treatment for muscle spasms depends on how the injury originated. A full medical history is crucial for a doctor, spine specialist, or chiropractor to be able to look at all the angles in determining and diagnosing the root cause.
It could be from just leaning over and picking up a box to sleeping in an improper/uncomfortable position. This type of pain is less concerning as it is more than likely a sprain or strain, and can be treated rather quickly.
However, if the spasms started after being involved in an automobile accident or falling pretty hard, then there could be serious damage to the area. Back spasms that occur after these types of situations require an immediate full neurologic and muscular examination. This along with advanced imaging, like an MRI.
A spine specialist or chiropractor wants to make sure they’re not missing any underlying injuries or instabilities of the spine that would require extensive and possible invasive treatment. Red flag situations include osteoporosis, which is the loss of bone mass or ankylosing spondylitis, which is a form of arthritis that mainly affects the spine.
Osteoporosis can cause an underlying compression fracture.
Ankylosing spondylitis can cause parts of the spine to fuse together.
Both underlying conditions can cause muscle spasms. However, conservative treatment for most cases is all that is usually needed to relieve muscle spasms of the spine. These include:
Anti-inflammation medications and creams
Chiropractic manipulation to improve spinal muscles range of motion
If results do not improve within four to six weeks of conservative treatment, then an MRI or other type of scan of the area will be needed.
All that said preventing back spasms is the way to go. We’ve all heard the phrase to be heart-healthy, which concerns cardiovascular health. Now it’s about being spine healthy. Keeping the abdominal muscles, lumbar extensors, and the erector spinae muscles fit is the key. This can be accomplished with regular stretching and core exercises. Also doing yoga and Pilates will go a long way in minimizing muscle spasms and preventing injuries.
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