Back Spasms 101

Dmitri_ May2013 Back Spasm

Has anyone you know ever “thrown their back out?” If you or someone you know has experienced this, you probably know it’s a common term used to describe a specific and sudden type of back pain. And while the phrase is a little vague, what’s actually happening is quite simple—the muscles in the spine experience a sudden contraction. In other words, it’s a back spasm. And unfortunately, they’re pretty common. Back spasms are thought to affect about 80 percent of adults at some point during their lifetime. However painful it may be, a back spasm, in and of itself, is nothing to worry about. With a little TLC, you can be back to your normal self in a short time. If you experience chronic back spasms, however, there may be an underlying issue. But with a couple simple lifestyle adjustments, you can live a spasm-free, pain-free life!

The Facts

A back spasm is a painful irritation of the erector spinae muscles surrounding the spine. These big muscles support the spine and keep you upright. When they get irritated, they tighten and become inflamed. Often, a back spasm is the symptom of a different issue, which can range from fatigue to nutritional imbalance. There are many courses of treatment for back spasms, but consulting with a medical professional may help you address any underlying causes in order to prevent further instances of spasms.

The Symptoms

The most common symptom of a back spasm is pain in the lower or middle back. This pain can range from mild discomfort to extreme, sharp pain. Some patients experience a feeling of being stuck in one position or difficulty sitting or standing up fully. The pain is commonly first felt during movement, especially with bending and/or twisting motions, but the pain persists even after the movement has stopped.

Since the muscle in the back is contracting, the muscle may feel hard to the touch, and releasing that tension seems impossible.

What Is Happening

A muscle spasm in the back occurs due to an involuntary contraction of a muscle along the spine. The most commonly irritated muscles are the erector spinae, or back extensors, which straighten the torso from a bent position. Short-term spasms that start suddenly and resolve in minutes usually result from the body’s lack of water or electrolytes. Until the deficit is resolved, the muscles will continue to sporadically spasm. Long-term spasms, which are more severe, may result from overstretched or strained muscles. The muscles around the compromised muscles restrict motion by tightening in order to brace around the injury and prevent further damage.

Why Is This Happening

Muscle spasms can be caused by many factors, such as muscle fatigue and dehydration, musculoskeletal imbalance, or nervous system imbalance.
When muscles are fatigued from overuse or dehydration, they are more likely to spasm and cramp. Overuse and dehydration both deplete the body’s source of key nutrients such as potassium. Since potassium is necessary for muscle relaxation, staying hydrated (ideally with something fortified with electrolytes) and being mindful of your physical limitations will help keep you spasm-free.

The body is designed with a specific alignment so that all the muscles are proportionately strong and long. Unfortunately, no one has perfect alignment. When the bones are out of alignment, some muscles are overly stretched while others are overly contracted. The more time we spend in improper alignment, the longer certain muscles are overstretched. When a muscle is overstretched, the nervous system signals a stretch reflex to occur, which is a hypercontraction of the muscle. Ideally, a stretch reflex prevents a muscle from overstretching and tearing. When you go to the doctor and they tap your knee with that little hammer-like tool, they are testing your stretch reflex. When you have a muscle in a state of overstretch, the muscle may spasm to protect itself from injury. If you have one muscle that continually spasms, consider your standing and/or seated alignment to see if the issue might be related to a musculoskeletal imbalance.

Finally, when the nervous system is imbalanced, it may be unnecessarily firing signals to the muscles to contract, causing unexpected, severe, even debilitating muscle spasms. This is likely a sign that your body is overusing the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and underutilizing the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
If you experience spasms frequently or for no apparent reason, speak to your doctor or physical therapist. Sometimes, spasms that don’t resolve themselves are the body’s way of signaling a medical problem that requires treatment.

Lifestyle Adjustments
  1. Keep hydrated. For sufficient and effective hydration, drink water consistently throughout the day. To determine the recommended amount of water your body needs, read the Yoffie Life recommendation here.
  2. Get your daily greens. Get in the habit of adding a daily green to your diet for extra potassium and magnesium. These nutrients are essential to healthy muscle contraction and release. You need about 3 cups of greens a day, or about the size of your two fists. Spinach is chock full of potassium and magnesium, making it a great choice. For more Yoffie Life recommendations, check out our list of Top 12 Dark Leafy Greens.
  3. Sleep. Fatigue greatly increases the likelihood of back spasms and other injuries and maladies. The average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night so the body has enough time to fully repair itself from the wear and tear of the day. Schedule in the sleep you need to keep yourself injury-free!
Prevent It

1. Ground the Feet. Our feet set up the foundation for the alignment of the rest of the body. If the feet are misaligned, not only will the alignment in your feet and ankles be impacted, but also will the alignment in the rest of the body. Misalignment causes imbalance in the muscles of the body, leading to weakness in some areas and tightness in others, often resulting in painful muscle spasms. To reduce your chance of muscle spasms, start by grounding the feet to enhance the alignment of your entire body! To Ground the Feet, first create equal pressure on the left and right foot. Then, imagine points at the base of your big toes, pinky toes, outer heels, and inner heels. Pull the toe stems long and push all four points of the soles into the ground. In everyday life, you can Ground the Feet when you stand in line at the grocery store, brush your teeth, or sit at your desk at work. No matter if you’re seated or standing, connect to the ground beneath you by simply pressurizing through the four points of the soles (with equal weight on both feet) and reach long through the toes.

2. Anchor the Hips. Many back spasms are due to overworked back muscles. The back muscles are easily overworked when the abdominal muscles are not properly engaged and/or the hips are misaligned. Anchoring the hips teaches you to engage the abdominal muscles, align the hips, and thus relieve excess pressure on the lower back. To Anchor the Hips, make “L” Mudra with your hands. Place your thumbs on your ribs and your index fingers on your hips. The space between the thumbs and the index finger is called the side body. This area shortens when you slump or slouch. Increase the space between the index fingers and thumbs to lengthen the side body. Now, draw the lower belly—the space between the belly button and the pubic bone—back toward the spine and up toward the ribcage to engage the deepest layer of abdominal muscle (transverse abdominis). Finally, release the glutes, or butt muscles. To learn to release your glutes, it may help to understand what it feels like to do the opposite—grip the glutes. To grip the glutes squeeze them together. Now release. In everyday life, you can Anchor the Hips when standing from a chair. Before rising, lengthen the side body. On an exhale, Ground the Feet, and simultaneously pull the belly in toward the back and up toward the ribcage and release the glutes to stand.

3. Mobilize the Ribs. If your muscle spasms are caused by a nervous system imbalance, consciously engaging the ribs will help you tap into your parasympathetic nervous system. To Mobilize the Ribs, expand the ribs in all directions on your inhale—toward the back, sides, and front. On an exhale, contract the ribs toward center. Start by noticing your natural breath and breathing tendencies. Then, actively expand and contract the ribs. You can use a mirror to see where you more easily inhale or exhale, or better yet, place your hands on your ribs and feel the movement. If you typically breathe in the front of your ribs, try to inflate the back of your ribs. It may be harder than you imagine. Since you are constantly breathing, you can Mobilize the Ribs any time of day! Practice while waiting on your morning coffee or tea, walking down the street, or warming up before you exercise. Notice the ribs expand wide as you inhale. Now, actively contract the ribs as you exhale. Challenge yourself to keep the side body—the space between the ribs and hips—long as you contract.

Fix It

Right when a muscle spasm is occurring, apply heat and/or gently massage the affected area with the help of a soft ball or friend. Either method will increase blood flow to the erector spinae muscles to bring necessary nutrients to the muscle and trigger it to relax. Once you’ve increased circulation to the muscle, you can begin gentle stretches to regain your full range of motion.

Exercises

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  1. Lay on your back allowing your ribcage to sink to the floor. Notice the movement of your ribcage as you breath naturally.
  2. Place your hands on either side of your ribcage with your thumbs wrapping around to your back body and your fingertips pointing toward each other on your front body.
  3. Slowly inhale through your nose, consciously pushing your ribcage to move east and west toward your palm centers. Notice how your fingers move away from each other as your ribcage expands.
  4. Slowly exhale through your mouth, like a long yawn, allowing your ribcage to knit back together. Release all of the air out of your ribcage.
  5. Repeat for 10 consecutive breaths and your muscle spasms should melt away!
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Yoffie Life disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.