Back pain will affect 80% of us during our lifetime and is one of the most common things people come to see us for. The first thing to do is not panic, providing there is no underlying pathology the pain is usually muscular in nature and will resolve itself in 3 or 4 days.
When people say “I’ve put my back out” what has normally occurred is a spasm of some of the muscles in the back. This can happen as a result of overload in one incident, lifting a heavy object for example. It can also be more insidious in nature, with the final straw being something innocuous like picking up a pen from the floor.
The spasm represents a reaction to you moving into a position of extreme instability. It’s your body’s way of stopping you abruptly in the quickest way possible.
What can be confusing is the timing. People often describe to me how they were gardening 2 days before without issue. However on the morning of the incident they bent over to clean their teeth in the sink and their back went into spasm. If you think back to what you were doing during the previous days you will usually see that the low load task which put you into spasm was indeed the last straw. The damage had in fact been done several days before the incident.
How does this happen?
Every muscle in the body has a maximum tolerance to force. When that tolerance has been exceeded the body will inhibit the muscle to prevent it from being damaged. For example, say you had 20 muscles working in your back before you started digging the garden. It was a beautiful day so you stayed out there longer than you normally would and by the time you finished you had just 10 muscles contracting effectively.
The next day you felt ok if a little stiff. Following 2 long days at the office you now had just 5 muscles in your back working to the best of their ability. When you woke up the next day and bent forward to clean your teeth your central nervous system made the calculation that there is no way those 5 muscles could control the weight of your torso bending forwards and used everything it had to stop you from doing so, sending those 5 remaining muscles into spasm.
What can you do now?
The best thing to do is to move around as gently as possible. The violent contraction of those remaining muscles will have created inflammation and soreness that will take 3 or 4 days to resolve. You want to try and encourage the muscles that were overloaded during the gardening to start working again and the best way to do this is with subtle, pain free movement.
How do you prevent this from happening again?
Increasing the amount of force that your back muscles can tolerate is the way to go. This requires exercise at the appropriate intensity which ideally needs to be tested via a treatment process like Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT). If you don’t have access to a MAT Specialist then start very easy and progress slowly.