What causes back spasms, and how to treat them

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What are back spasms, and how are they caused?
Tennis superstar Serena Williams had to drop out of her Rogers Cup final match against Bianca Andreescu after suffering from back spasms. But what are back spasms, and why do they happen? – Aug 13, 2019

Tennis star Serena Williams blamed back spasms for withdrawing from the finals of the Rogers Cup on Sunday.

“The most frustrating part is that I’ve had these awful spasms a lot in my career,” said Williams. “And they’re incredibly painful, but it goes away after, like, 24, 36, maybe 48 hours, and like clockwork.”

Usually, she said, she takes a day off to recover, but she wasn’t able to in the middle of a tournament – so she was forced to quit, letting Canadian Bianca Andreescu win the match.

But it’s not just professional athletes like Williams who suffer from back spasms.

READ MORE: Canadian teen Bianca Andreescu wins Rogers Cup after Serena Williams withdraws

Back pain “is probably the most common thing I see,” said physiotherapist Lynda McClatchie, who runs Elevation Physiotherapy & Wellness in Mississauga, Ont., and is an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine. About 80 per cent of adults experience back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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Back spasms are the muscles attempting to protect your body from pain, explained Greg Alcock, clinical and research coordinator in physiotherapy at Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic in London, Ont., and a lecturer at Western University.

If something has gone wrong and part of your back is injured or overextended and causing you pain, your muscles might tighten to guard against the pain or to keep you from getting into that painful position, he said.

“A protective mechanism, really that’s what it is.”

The cause of back spasms can vary, he said. It could be a sports injury from overuse or repeatedly forcing yourself into fully-extended positions, which he thinks is likely what Serena Williams experienced, or it can be something as simple as reaching for an object on a high shelf.

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“It could be somebody just overreaching in the garage to get a rake, and so the movement goes beyond maybe what was expected, or you picked up a bag that was heavier than you thought it might be at the gym,” he said.

“Your body wasn’t really ready and anticipating that load and then the joint or some of the other structures can get overloaded acutely.”

READ MORE: We’re treating lower back pain all wrong. Here’s how to do it right.

Our sedentary lifestyles contribute to back pain and back spasms, McClatchie said.

“We live very imbalanced,” she said. “We make such a big deal out of sitting because everybody, when they sit, slouches.”

Our spines are constantly rounded forward as we sit, she said. And when your life involves driving to work, spending the day at a desk, eating meals at a table and watching TV on the couch in the evening, that’s a lot of time sitting hunched over.

Over time, that rounded posture causes wear and tear on the back, which can lead to painful spasms when you do something simple like reaching down to pick something up off the ground, she said.

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“So much of the time these spasms or pain can start without trauma, just for no obvious reason because it’s cumulative and your back just kind of has enough,” she said.

Back spasms can be incredibly painful.

“I do not wish back pain on anybody because it can be just horribly debilitating for a time,” she said.

Alcock agrees. “A true back spasm, you would think, if I feel a sneeze coming right now I do not know what I’m going to do,” he said. “You want to grab a pillow from the couch and hold it tight.”

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If you’re experiencing back spasms, he said, the first step is to deal with the pain. “Make sure the pain stays in the back and doesn’t start doing other things like go down the leg because that can be indicative of a worsening or an additional type of a problem.”

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Sitting still or lying down for too long to rest your back can be harmful, McClatchie said. “That’s very 1988, to be thinking, ‘Oh you just need to lie down.’”

It’s better to start moving as soon as you can, she said.

READ MORE: Reasons you’re probably suffering from back pain (besides sitting all day)

A little bit of pain while exercising is ok, Alcock said, but if the pain persists or feels worse after exercise, you should use your common sense and ease up a little.

The same movements or exercises won’t work for everybody, McClatchie noted. “You can have a very similar location of pain as somebody else, and what helps you, hurts them.”

For this reason, it might be helpful to seek professional help, like from a sports doctor or physiotherapist to determine what treatment will work best for you. If pain persists for more than two or three days without improvement, Alcock suggests having someone take a look at it.

McClatchie believes that back pain can be treated with the right techniques. “It is not normal to have back pain,” she said. “It is not a normal function of aging.”

-With a file from the Canadian Press


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