Muscle and Back Pain

In the majority of the articles on this website, we have discusses the causes of back pain related to degenerative changes to the soft tissues of the back and spine. But often muscle strain and weakened muscles may be the reason for back pain. Unlike the facet joints and ligaments of the spine, muscles have the ability to repair themselves and regenerate when they are sprained or torn. Muscles, unlike ligaments, are extremely elastic, routinely expanding and contracting to enable our bodies to move. For this reasons, muscles may recover fully is stretched beyond a range that they are designed to be pulled. This is the reason why you hear of sprained ligaments rather than sprained muscles. Muscles that have become injured due to strain or overuse are referred to as muscle strains rather than muscle sprains.

There is still much debate in the medical community as to how often back pain is the result of muscle strain. Here are some of the things we do know.
  • Muscles are heavily vascularized (supplied with blood vessels). For this reason, they heal and regenerate themselves much faster than connective tissues such as ligaments, joints, and the discs of the spine.
  • Though muscle strain is rarely the cause of chronic back pain, it is often the cause of acute back pain, lasting from 1-14 days.
  • Muscle strains often may heal themselves, without medical intervention, though there are some things that people can do to accelerate the healing process, such as massage therapy.


The diagnosis of muscles as a cause of back pain is reversed, as compared to those of soft tissue injuries. While medical imaging studies are often required to diagnose soft tissue injuries such as degenerated discs and facet joint arthritis, with muscle strains a more hands on examination is required more often. It is difficult to tell a lot about the condition of the muscles, particularly with X-Ray exams, because muscle tissue does not show up very well on X-ray exams. Often, doctors and other back experts will manipulate the muscles to test for muscle spasms and muscle tension. Doctors may also test the strength of certain muscles to test for weakness.

Diagnosing muscle strains as a cause of back pain may be a difficult task. The muscles, nerves, ligaments, discs, and other soft tissues of the spine, are all linked to one another through the nerve branches that multiply upon leaning the nerve roots of the spine. For this reason, a person may feel muscle spasms and pain in the muscle because of damage that has occurred to the soft tissues of the spine linked to the muscle through the nerves. For example, in many cases, a herniated disc in the back may cause the adjacent nerve root to it to become squeezed, and that nerve root may signal the structures close to it to stiffen up in order to protect that area. This signal to the muscle to stiffen and restrict movement could have the effect of causing significant stiffness, and causing the muscle to spasm. Though this signal to restrict movement to that muscle and soft tissues could have the positive affect of protecting a damaged section of the spine from further movement and injury.