At some time during their lives, 85-90% of people living in the United States will experience an episode of back pain. In fact, back pain is one of the most common reasons that Americans go to a doctor or miss time at work.
Though a thrown out back rarely indicates any serious underlying condition, the pain can be intense and debilitating. There are at-home treatments that offer ways to lessen the pain and heal over time.
What Does it Mean to “Throw Out Your Back”?
The term “thrown out back” often refers to acute back pain, which is immediate back pain that can persist for up to six weeks. Someone who has thrown out their back will experience sudden pain that can take a number of forms including dull or sharp, vague or well-defined, aching or burning, and mild or severe.
“Thrown out back” is a figure of speech that is not a specific medical diagnosis, but a catch-all term for acute back pain due to a strain or minor injury. This means symptoms and causes of a thrown out back may vary.
Thrown Out Back Symptoms
Symptoms of a thrown out back may vary. Some of the more typical symptoms are:
- Sharp, shooting lower back pain
- Aching muscles
- Stiffness that impedes full range of motion
- Difficulty keeping proper posture
- Muscle spasms, or when your muscles tighten and relax rapidly
These acute back pain symptoms can last for weeks, and should gradually subside with rest and the right treatment. However, back pain that persists past six to eight weeks could indicate chronic back pain, which is more serious and requires a trip to a healthcare professional.
What Causes Your Back to Go Out
Because “throwing out your back” is a broad expression, it encompasses many causes. A thrown out back comes about quickly, usually triggered by activity that could be as strenuous as an intense weight-training workout or as simple as bending over at your waist to pick something up off the ground.
Most causes of thrown out backs are mechanical, or the result of movement inducing wear and tear in the muscles, joints, and discs in your back and the bones that make up your spine.
Some of the most common mechanical issues leading to acute back pain are:
- Sprains or strains: Strains are muscle tears while sprains are ligament tears. Both can happen when you rely too heavily on your back to lift something heavy or twist your back awkwardly.
- Degeneration of intervertebral discs: Between the series of small bones in your spine, or vertebrae, are small intervertebral discs that work like shock absorbers, bracing your spinal column during impact and keeping your vertebrae separated. These discs break down as you get older, which exposes your body to lower back pain when bending or twisting.
- Slipped discs: The discs between your vertebrae are made up of a durable outer ring with a softer ring inside. A slipped disc, or herniated disc, occurs when the inner ring protrudes through the outer one.
- Radiculopathy: This condition occurs when a nerve root in the spine is damaged, compressed, or inflamed. Sciatica is a prevalent form of radiculopathy, characterized by a pinched nerve in the lower back, or lumbar spine region. Sciatica symptoms might include numbness, tingling, weakness, or even sharp pain in your lower back, legs, and feet.
Underlying conditions causing back pain
In very rare cases, acute back pain may indicate a different underlying condition. While uncommon, acute back pain could be a symptom of the following:
- Kidney stones: These mineral and salt-based deposits that form inside your kidneys can lead to stabbing pain in your lower back, often on one side.
- Infections: While uncommon, infections of the intervertebral discs (discitis), vertebrae (osteomyelitis), or other areas of the back can lead to back pain.
- Tumors: They are a rare cause of back pain, but certain types of cancer that originate near or in the spine can create lower back pain, including lung cancer and spinal tumors.
Frequently with these conditions, a thrown out back is not the only symptom. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms along with back pain, seek out medical care as soon as possible:
- Quick, unexpected weight loss
- Trouble urinating or urinary incontinence
- Fecal incontinence
- Weakness and/or numbness in your arms and legs
Thrown Out Back Diagnosis
When seeing a patient who cites a thrown out back, a doctor will ask about what brought on the condition, the patient’s symptoms, and if there is anything that makes the pain better or worse. Many people find it easy to recall the moment they threw out their back due to the instant twinge of pain or discomfort.
Depending on the severity of symptoms and pain, a doctor may recommend more tests, such as imaging studies like x-rays, MRIs, or CT scans, which could reveal underlying injuries or causes of the back pain in extreme cases. However, most of the time imaging is not needed for an acute episode of back pain, and treating the symptoms at home is reasonable.
How to Treat a Thrown Out Back
When you throw out your back, there are several treatments at home you can implement to potentially decrease the pain immediately and prime your back to heal faster:
- Rest: The first and most important thing you can do is rest your back. Rest reduces inflammation and helps your body heal. For immediate relief, find a hard surface (like the floor) to lie on your stomach, and keep your arms to your side in a relaxed position. Turn your head to one side or roll up a towel to support your forehead. Putting your back in a more neutral position and relaxing its muscles reduces pressure on the affected areas.
- Anti-inflammatory medication: Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like naproxen sodium (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) can provide pain relief for a thrown out back. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a pain-relieving medication that can be gentler on your stomach, though it is not anti-inflammatory, but may also be helpful in managing pain. Be sure to take these medications only as directed, as overuse can have serious side effects. Topical lidocaine patches and rubs like Icy Hot may be helpful as well.
- Ice, then heat: Ice and heat may decrease inflammation and lessen pain. Wrap ice or an ice pack in cloth and apply it to the affected area in 10-15 minute intervals a few times each day in the first 24-48 hours. This can help reduce swelling, which may be a source of pain. After the first 1-2 days, you can implement a heating pad in a similar fashion to help relax your muscles. Warm baths, with or without Epsom or magnesium salts, or showers may help as well.
- Sleep: Sleeping on your back may be uncomfortable when you first throw out your back. If that’s the case, try rolling onto your side and putting a pillow between your knees instead. That pillow will help improve alignment for your spine, pelvis and hips.
- Regular movement: Following 1-3 days of rest, it’s important to get moving again in order to reduce stiffness and increase blood flow to your muscles. When the pain diminishes you can gradually begin to exercise, which will help fortify your muscles and speed up recovery. Begin by walking in 10-minute bursts and practicing simple stretches like pulling your knees towards your chest.
Recovery time may be as long as 6-8 weeks, though you should expect to see some improvement within 1-2 weeks. For pain that lasts longer than 6-8 weeks, an examination by a healthcare provider is recommended.
Treatment options for chronic back pain
If throwing out your back becomes commonplace over the course of a year or more and symptoms linger, you may be experiencing chronic back pain. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor might suggest any of these treatments:
- Prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) help reduce inflammation and pain around the muscles, discs, and joints in your back. If your back pain is chronic or more severe, a physician may prescribe higher doses. Overuse of NSAIDs can result in side effects including stomach pain, ulcers, and, in rare cases, kidney damage, so it’s best to consult your doctor about appropriate dosages.
- Physical therapy: Regimens that improve flexibility, posture, and core strength can take stress away from your back.
- A chiropractor: Spinal manipulation and mobilization have been shown to offer short-term relief for sufferers of chronic back pain, although these techniques aren’t recommended if the back pain is being caused by an underlying condition.
- Acupuncture: This long-practiced physical therapy technique has become a go-to for many in managing chronic back pain. An acupuncturist inserts ultra-thin needles into strategic pressure points of the body through your skin. When these points are stimulated, they may relieve pain by stimulating parts of your nervous system. Most studies point to acupuncture having positive effects with low risks when done with well-trained hands.
- Surgery: For traumatic experiences like car accidents that cause serious nerve compression or musculoskeletal injuries, surgery might relieve pain when other treatments can’t. Patients should fully understand the risks of surgery, which include but are not limited to extended recovery times and potential loss of flexibility. Speak with your doctor about surgery if it’s recommended with your circumstances.
How to Prevent a Thrown Out Back
You can reduce your risk of a thrown out back by doing the following:
- Keeping your weight within a healthy range
- Exercising regularly, and warming up before exercising
- Lifting objects with your legs by bending your knees–not your back
- Maintaining good posture
- Avoiding high heels
Risk Factors and Complications
Anyone can fall prey to a thrown out back, but some conditions might put you at a greater risk, such as:
- Getting older: Back pain becomes more common as you get older, starting in your 30s or 40s.
- Lack of exercise: Without regular exercise and a healthy weight, you can stress the muscles in your back that may already be weakened.
- Smoking: Smoking both slows down the healing process and reduces blood flow to the lower spine, leaving the discs in your back deprived of nutrients.
When to See a Doctor
A thrown out back is likely to improve with home treatment and care, but if your acute back pain lasts for longer than 1-2 weeks, make an appointment to talk to a physician. If the pain is severe and does not improve with rest, you should also see a doctor.
If you notice any unusual symptoms—like a fever or new bladder and bowel issues—seek immediate medical care, as in rare cases back pain signals a more serious underlying issue. Generally, if you suspect something is wrong with your back, speak with a doctor sooner rather than later.
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.