Back Strain 101

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Millions of Americans experience back pain each year. There are a ton of different injuries and conditions that can contribute to back pain, but one of the most common causes is a strain, or tear, in the muscles of the back. Although it can be painful, the actual issue is not as bad as it sounds. In fact, every day our bodies repair tiny muscle tears from the wear and tear of daily life. A back strain is just a tear that takes a little more time to heal. You can, however, expedite the healing process and prevent future injury by strengthening the abdominal muscles, improving your overall alignment, and implementing a few tips and tricks for safe lifting and exercising.

The Facts

Lumbar (low back) strains usually occur after performing a bending motion with a rapid twist, or maintaining improper form while lifting a heavy object. A back strain is a tear in the muscles that support and extend (keep upright) the spine—these are the erector spinae muscles. A strain can vary from a small tear, which may feel like a “tweak,” to a large tear, which can be debilitating. The pain is similar to and may even be accompanied by a back spasm—a sudden contraction of the erector spinae muscles. While a strain may be an isolated injury, it can also be an indication of a larger underlying condition like arthritis or a herniated disc. A medical professional will ask about your symptoms and may run some imaging tests, like x-ray or MRI, to determine the cause and severity of your strain.

The Symptoms

Back strains create pain immediately when they occur. Some patients report feeling a “pop,” followed by an inability to fully straighten or bend the back. The muscles immediately tighten, and movement is often difficult. Over time, this pain diminishes from a sharp shooting pain to a dull achy pain that lasts as long as the tear is present in the muscles.

Other symptoms include swelling and inflammation in the affected area.

What Is Happening

Most of the initial pain is a muscle spasm—a sudden contraction of the muscle. Spasms are your body’s natural response to injury, designed to restrict motion and prevent further tearing to the muscles. With the spasm comes inflammation , but once the inflammation decreases, the spasm will gradually release its contraction, and the strain can begin to heal properly.

Why Is This Happening

Causes of back strain include:

• Hip Misalignment
When the body is misaligned, the muscles cannot function optimally. Some muscles weaken while others work harder, leading to increased risk of injury. When the hips are misaligned, it puts additional burden on the back muscles. This burden can be amplified when the abdominal muscles are weak or underutilized. Chronic hip misalignment takes a toll on the body and can make you more susceptible to injury like back strain.

• Improper Lifting
Many people strain their back muscles while lifting a heavy object off the floor. If your knees are straight and the abdominals are not engaged, all of the work falls on the back muscles. The back is not designed to bear weight like that, so strains often occur. This risk is amplified if you are also trying to twist while lifting.

• Fatigue
When the body is tired, reaction time slows and form is compromised. When drained or fatigued, it is easier to make careless mistakes that can lead to injuries like back strain. This is especially true among athletes. If an athlete is overtired and fails to properly engage the abdominals, they can easily suffer a back strain.

• More serious underlying conditions

Sometimes a back strain is a symptom of a more serious underlying condition that affects the alignment and strength of the spine and back muscles. Some conditions that can lead to back strain include herniated disc, fractured vertebra(e), or arthritis in the spine or hips.

Lifestyle Adjustments
  1. Weight loss. Obesity is directly correlated to back strain due to the extra weight the body is forced to support. The muscles are essentially working overtime to keep an unbalanced body in balance. By losing weight, the workload of the muscles decreases, minimizing the chance of injury.
  2. Warm up, cool down! Implement a warm-up regimen to ensure the muscles are supple and ready for action. When muscles are “cold,” they tend to be tighter and more susceptible to injury. After strenuous activity, allow time for your muscles to cool back down. Try gentle stretches to encourage the muscles to relax. For more information about how to warm the body up, see our Warm Up article.
  3. Lift with care. When lifting a heavy object, place your body directly in front of the object, bend your knees, and lift slowly. Avoid simultaneously bending and twisting, especially when lifting an item off the ground.
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

Immediately after injury, apply ice to the affected area. Ice reduces inflammation so the body can repair damage more effectively. To prevent further injury, avoid strenuous activities while the strain is healing. If the pain persists or increases over the next 48 hours, see a medical professional to determine further treatment.

Exercises

tabletop breathing redone

 

 

Supine Marching

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1. Lie on your back with your arms and head resting on the ground with your knees bent and your feet firmly grounded. Push the heels of your hands deeply into the floor, engaging the muscles of your arms.

2. On each exhale, pull your stomach in toward your spine while you lift and lower one leg to a bent leg ninety-degree tabletop position and back down to start.

3. On each exhale, march one leg followed by the other for one minute. Repeat the exercise three times.

Bridging

Bridge_MarchB
1. Lie on your back with your arms and head resting on the ground with your knees bent and your feet firmly grounded. Push the heels of your hands deeply into the floor, engaging the muscles of your arms.

2. Inhale; push your lower back into the mat and lift your tailbone up toward the ceiling. Pull each vertabra up off the floor, one at a time, until you are resting on your shoulder blades.

3. Exhale; lower down, one vertebra at a time, back to start.

4. Repeat fifteen times, three sets.

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.