I can pretty much guarantee that if you are reading this then you will have experienced a back spasm at least once. Now it may have been just a warning tightness you felt which subsided fairly quickly or a spasm that stayed and became debilitating. With back pain guidelines hitting the news recently with the latest report from the American College of Physicians (ACP) stating we should try drug-free remedies such as heat wraps, exercise, stretching and stress-reduction techniques before reaching for pain killers, I thought you might like to know why your back spasms and why these guidelines are so relevant.
A back spasm will often occur when the deeper underlying layer of muscles are not firing with proper timing and duration. The role of our often smaller and deeper muscles in our back is to stabilize and brace the spine over long periods of time. However, if we under utilize these muscles and leave them under trained without proper conditioning then ultimately they will fatigue and become unable to perform their designated duties. When this happens, the larger more superficial layers of the back begin to compensate and try to perform the job of the deeper muscles.
Unfortunately our larger superficial muscles are not designed to perform in this way, their role is more movement with shorter bursts of energy. Therefore asking them to perform over sustained and long periods of time means they will fatigue pretty quickly.
The result of this lack of balance between the muscles of our back are that the deeper layer of muscles shut down, no longer performing their primary function, and the outer layers fatigue with the extra work which can often progress into a strained or sprained muscle.
When muscles no longer function to protect the vertebrae correctly, other surrounding muscles try to take their role so as to protect the vertebral column. The only thing they can do is to become extremely rigid so as to limit movement to avoid any risk of injury to the discs and nerves.
This occurs during back spasms as the outer layers of the back freeze in order to protect the deeper ones and consequently the spine. This phenomenon is known as “guarding”.
When a muscle or group of muscles guard a specific area such as a joint or disc space, sometimes the area is no longer stable as the guarding locks the joint into a new position. Here the muscles that were protected from the outer layer have fixed in to a new position or misalignment. There is an imbalance of strength and length in the muscle that remains as the pain subsides.
This ultimately presents a risk to the area, disc or nerve and perpetuates an additional problem in a cycle of pain and injury.
Most people cannot even sense that they are out of alignment and continue to perform their daily activities. They assume that they are healed and risk re-injury and further guarding that may exacerbate further misalignment and pain.
Therefore masking pain with drugs is not the way forward to stopping your back spasm in the future. Taking an approach of strengthening the smaller underlying muscles is key. However the training should be specific to the role that you are depending on them to complete i.e. keeping the spine in a braced natural “S” curve. Short tight muscles should also be addressed as they will be responsible for pulling your bones out of alignment. A stretching program should be implemented to address these muscles shortness.