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Low back strains and sprains

The back is a complex part of the body. It is supported by ligaments, tendons and cartilage and bears the majority of the body’s weight during daily activities, such as walking, lifting and running. Therefore, it’s not hard to understand why injuries, strains and sprains are so commonly experienced throughout the back.

What is a low back strain?

A strain refers to an injury to a tendon or muscle. Tendons are the tough, fibrous bands of tissue that join muscle to bone. When you strain your back it means that the tendons and muscles that support the spine have been torn, twisted or pulled.

What is a low back sprain?

A sprain refers to the tearing or stretching of a ligament. Ligaments are the fibrous bands of tissue that join two or more bones at a joint and prevent too much movement of the joint.

What are the symptoms of a low back strain or sprain?

Strain and sprain symptoms include:

  • Low back muscle cramping and spasms
  • Decreased function of the low back, such as bending forward, walking or standing straight
  • Low back pain the increases in severity over time
  • Pop or tear at the time of the injury to the low back

What causes a back strain or sprain?

A strain can result from the twist or pull of a tendon, overstressing the back muscles and a single instance of improper lifting, while a chronic strain can be the result of repetitive movement of the muscles and tendons. Whereas, a sprain can be the result of a sudden fall or twist that causes a blow to the body, forcing the joint out of it’s original position. All of these cause injury because they stretch one or more ligaments beyond their normal range o movement.

There are also other factors that put a person at risk of a back strain or sprain, including excessive curving of the lower back, having weak abdominal or back muscles, being overweight and tight hamstrings. The risk is low back injury can also be increased due to sports that involve pushing and pulling, for example weightlifting and football.

How common are low back strains and sprains?

Back problems in general at the second most common complaint to health care professionals, second only to the common cold.

How are back sprains and strains diagnosed?

Medical history, physical examination, symptoms and review of the method of injury are used to diagnose mild strains and sprains by the chiropractors and physiotherapists at Sydney Spine & Sports Centre (S3C). For more sever cases of strains and sprains, especially when the patient is experiencing loss of function or weakness, an x-ray or other special imagine (CT, MRI) is used to determine what the cause of pain is and rule out a fracture or herniated disc.

How are back strains and sprains treated?

There are two phases to the treatment process, which is similar for both strains and sprains. The first phase is aimed at reducing pain and spasm and involves rest and ice packs for the first 24-48 hours after the injury. To help reduce pain and swelling, an anti-inflammatory medication may be recommended by one of our chiropractors or physiotherapists. It is also advised that after the first 24-48 hours the patient should return to work or normal activity, if tolerable.

Most patients with lumbar strain or sprain will see improvements in symptoms within 2 weeks. If symptoms continue, additional treatment may be recommended and required. This decision is based completely on a patient-to-patient basis, as all treatments at Sydney Spine & Sports Centre Balmain and Dee Why are individualised and based on the latest evidence.

What complications are associated with back strains and sprains?

Weight gain, loss of muscle strength and loss of bone density are the most common complications of back strains and sprains when they become chronic. It is very important to early treatment to ensure full functional recovery.

How can back sprains and strains be prevented?

While it is not possible to prevent all back strains and sprains, there are ways in which they can be avoided and therefore cause a lower risk. These are the suggestions formulated by the chiropractors and physiotherapists at Sydney Spine & Sports Centre (S3C):

  • Maintain a healthy weight. The lower back can experience added stress if you don’t watch your excess weight
  • Eat healthy. A well balanced diet can do wonders in keeping your bones healthy and strong
  • Get regular exercise. This included stretching regularly to keep your joints flexible and your muscles in good condition
  • Being safe. To prevent falls, practice safety by wearing shoes that fit and keeping stairways free of clutter or objects that could lead to a fall
  • Sitting. Try to sit up straight and keep your shoulders back. When sitting, keep your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Quit smoking. Nicotine interferes with blood flow to the muscles
  • Lifting. When lifting, always bend your knees

When should I contact my chiropractor or physiotherapist?

You should call your chiropractor or physiotherapist when you:

  • Experience severe pain and struggle, or cannot, walk a few steps
  • Experience pain and have injured your lower back on several other occasions
  • Experience pain that is troubling your sleep
  • Notice a lump or area with an unusual shape
  • Experience numbness in the area of the injury or throughout your leg
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Chris Knee

Chris is an experienced and qualified chiropractor, sports chiropractor, McKenzie Credentialed practitioner, nutritionist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is finishing of his Doctor of Physiotherapy at Macquarie University.

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