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What is a Strain and How to Prevent It?

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By Rachel Herrmann, DPT

What is a back strain?

Lower back pain is one of the most common issues seen in an outpatient physical therapy clinic and the vast majority of people will experience some form of back pain at least once throughout their life. There are many different causes of low back pain, but one common cause of back pain is due to muscle strain. Muscle strains can occur to any muscle throughout the body. Strains are little tears in the muscles often microscopic in size. For this reason, MRIs will often not show muscle strains because the tears are so small which is one reason why imaging is not always needed for back pain.

How do back strains occur?

Back strains can occur as a result of overuse, poor body mechanics or trauma.  Doing more than usual activity, or more strenuous than usual activity such as chopping wood in the fall, and helping someone move a heavy piece of furniture are examples of overuse and could potentially involve faulty body mechanics.  Trauma that can often result in low back strains will often involve  sudden changes in directions such as during a car accident, a slip and fall, moving quickly to try to catch something else that is falling, a dog suddenly pulling on its leash, or even the quick jerking of an energetic kid pulling or jumping on you.

How would a back strain feel?

Strains will typically be very achy, although sharp pain is possible initially or with quick or sudden movements. Stiffness and tightness is also common with this type of injury especially first thing in the morning or after periods of inactivity. After some gentle movement, some of the pain and stiffness does often improve.

How can a back strain affect you?

This kind of back pain can make prolonged sitting, standing or walking difficult as the back muscles may feel more fatigued, stiff and achy. Twisting and bending movements such as with turning in bed, getting in or out of the car, bending forward to put your shoes and socks on may also be uncomfortable.  Further heavy lifting or vigorous activity may also reproduce and aggravate this back pain.

Can physical therapy help?

Yes! Physical therapy can help facilitate that healing process of back strains and can make it more comfortable for you. Physical therapy can also help prevent the acute pain from becoming a chronic pain by addressing any muscle restrictions, educating and training you in proper body mechanics, and helping you strengthen and stretch the affected and surrounding areas to prevent any further irritation or spasm of the healing muscles. Back strains typically have a good prognosis for recovery.

So if you think you may be experiencing a back strain, don’t hesitate to get help for it. The sooner you seek treatment, often times the easier the condition is to treat.  Or even if you are not sure if your back pain is a strain or due to one of the many other causes of back pain, talk to a physical therapist as they can help you determine if physical therapy would still be appropriate for you. Even if you back pain is not a strain, physical therapy can also be effective in treating other underlying causes of back pain, too.

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