How to Properly Rest and Recover Strained Back Muscles


Everyone will experience lower back strain at some point in their lives, but not everyone enjoys a smooth path to recovery. From twisting to lifting and bending, the muscles and tendons of the lumbosacral region, or lower back, are involved in almost every movement and activity of the body. Even a minor strain can bring your world to a screeching halt. Follow these six simple steps and enhance your chances of a speedy and complete recovery from minor back strain - whether caused by one weekend of overuse or repetitive insults to this critical area of the body.

Oh, my aching back!
(Getty Images, White Packert, Baoba Images,, Joos Mind, Andy Zito,, Drew Kelly)

Things You'll Need

  • Ice pack, compression wrap, pillows, back support cushion, back brace, properly fitting shoes.
Step 1

Rest during the first 24 to 48 hours is necessary to reduce spasm, pain, and inflammation of the affected area. This should include avoiding exercise, any weight-bearing activities, or any activity that requires frequent bending. When moving about, avoid positions and postures that cause pain or discomfort. Stay away from activities that involve heavy lifting or twisting of your back for the first six weeks after the pain begins.When sleeping, lie on your side with a pillow between your legs. If you sleep on your back, placing a rolled towel or pillow under your knees can help relieve pressure.

Take It Easy
Step 2

Apply ice and compression (pressure) to the injury work to reduce pain and swelling, and are especially effective in the first 24 to 48 hours, along with non-steroidal anti-flammatory medications as recommended by your care provider. Controlling swelling and inflammation not only help to reduce pain, they are also essential to the healing process. Icing acts to decrease fluid leaking into the injured area, reducing both pain and swelling. In the first 72 hours, apply ice for 20 minutes every few hours. If icing becomes uncomfortable, discontinue its use immediately. Applying heat to the injured area during the first few days can increase swelling and inflammation, and is not usually recommended.Compression can be applied by using a back wrap. There are a wide variety of back wraps available on the market, including combination wraps that provide both compression and icing.

Treat Symptoms
Step 3

Resume activity carefully. Prolonged immobility weakens muscles, decreases flexibility, and leads to increased risk of further injury. Resume activity as tolerated, avoiding activities that cause pain or discomfort to the injured area. Although you can resume normal activities within a few days of a simple back strain, don't assume you can jump right back into your normal exercise regime. Wait two to three weeks, then gradually begin to exercise again. Seeking the advice of a physical therapist can be invaluable in both the healing process and in the prevention of further injury.

Resume Normal Activity As Tolerated
Step 4

Avoid strenuous movements. Most people know that they should use proper body mechanics and avoid lifting heavy objects, but such admonishments are often vague and incomplete. For all activities, avoid twisting, over-reaching, and bending from the waist. When lifting, always keep your back straight, knees bent, use your buttock and leg muscles, lift slowly and hold the object close to your body. Never bend over and pick something up. When sitting, try to keep your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, using a back cushion or contoured chair as needed to maintain normal spinal curves. Even with proper back support, avoid sitting for prolonged periods. Try getting out of your chair at least once every hour. Remember, avoid activities that involve heavy lifting or twisting of your back for the first six weeks after the pain begins. Thereafter, how much weight is safe for one person to lift depends on many factors, including the number of times a certain object will be lifted over what period of time. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) establishes a maximum load of 51 pounds, which is then adjusted downward to account for how often you are lifting, twisting during lifting, the vertical distance a load is lifted, the distance you hold the load from your body, the distance moved while lifting, and how easy it is to hold onto the load. Consulting with your care provider or physical therapist about how much is safe for you to lift following any back strain or injury is the wisest course of action.

Use Proper Body Mechanics
Step 5

Ask your care provider for advice. Properly-fitted shoes, back braces, back supports, and seat cushions protect and help support the back during recovery and may prevent recurring injuries. Consult with your care provider for advice on the most suitable devices and proper fit. Providing the right support gently limits the movement of strained muscles, thus reducing pain and swelling, resulting in a more rapid healing time.

Utilize Support Aids
Step 6

Strengthen and stretch. Even if you exercise regularly, don't consider yourself to be out of shape, and are not overweight, chances are high that your back problems are related to weakness and/or lack of flexibility in one or more of the muscles that support the lower back. Strong, flexible hip, abdominal, and back muscles are the key to recovery from and prevention of low back strain. A daily workout that includes both strengthening and stretching exercises will help control inflammation and condition these important muscle groups to prevent further injury. You can increase your chances for a swift recovery if you work with a physical therapist to develop an exercise program specifically suited to your needs. If you don't belong to a gym, consider joining one. You may find it easier to stay motivated and keep fit if you work out with others. Many gyms also have trainers who are experienced in helping their clients to develop exercise programs for their back problems. Be sure to include simple stretching and strengthening exercises in your daily work routine, especially if your job involves sitting for prolonged periods. Ask your care provider for a set of exercise instructions with simple, easy-to-follow pictures and diagrams. You can also check on-line resources for appropriate exercises. At least three times a week, be sure to include low impact aerobic exercise such a bicycling (stationary or regular), walking, and swimming in your exercise regime. Such exercises will help strenghen your back, hip, and abdominal muscles without putting undue stress on your back and spine.

Exercise Recovery Program

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Tips & Warnings

  • Consider shedding those extra pounds. Excess weight will cause you to tire more easily and interfere with exercise. Your spine can also become tilted and stressed unevenly as it compensates for extra weight. Excess abdominal weight can also strain your back as it pulls the pelvis forward.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking decreases the blood flow to the spine, increases bone loss, and will make any exercise program more difficult -- all bad news for your back.
  • Don't be a hero - get plenty of help lifting heavy objects or hire someone to do it for you. If possible, divide heavy loads into smaller segments and make several trips. Pushing puts less stress on your back than pulling.
  • Keep moving. Avoid sitting at your desk for long periods. Remember, sitting puts pressure on the spine, so take a load off your back and get up and do a few stretches or strengthening exercises several times each day.
  • Walk, don't drive. Walking is one of the easiest and best ways to strengthen your back muscles. Staying in shape is probably the most important thing you can do to help prevent recurring episodes of back strain.
  • See your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following problems:
  • Any bowel or bladder problems
  • Numbness or weakness in your legs, groin or anal area
  • Back pain that prevents you from doing your daily activities, and it lasts for more than three or four days
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