Is Your Back Pain Spinal or Muscular?
Back pain can stem from many causes, but two of the largest categories are spinal pain and muscular pain. Learn the difference between spinal or muscular back pain and how to get relief.
What Is Spinal Back Pain?
Your back has 33 vertebrae and discs that act as shock absorbers between each one. Your spine is the structure your body centers around. It acts as the central highway for your nervous system, which allows your brain to communicate with the rest of your body.
When it comes to spinal pain vs. muscular pain, spinal back pain occurs when one of those vertebrae or discs is not where it should be. The most common cause of spinal pain is a bulging or herniated disc, which leads to a pinched nerve.
A bulging or herniated disc is when the cushioned padding between your discs has moved out of position. This causes pain because your spine isn’t cushioned the way it should be and because the herniated materials can add unwanted pressure on surrounding nerve tissues in your spine.
How Do You Know If Your Back Pain Is Spinal Pain?
Pain is complicated because everyone describes and experiences pain a little differently. That’s why there are slight differences in how patients describe their pain. Typically, spinal back pain is described as being sudden, sharp, hot, tingling, and stabbing.
If you’re feeling pain while sitting and resting, if the pain radiates from your lower back (lumbar region) into your leg (sciatica), or your pain is aggravated by specific activities like bending, pushing, or lifting, it is likely spinal pain.
How Can I Treat Spinal Back Pain at Home?
Because spinal back pain is caused by a mechanical failure of your spinal discs, there are a couple of things you can do at home to help alleviate some of the pain. Here are three of the best ways to treat your spinal back pain at home:
1. Rest. In most situations, time is the best solution. If you don’t push yourself too hard and give yourself the time your body needs to heal, the injury will heal on its own. Avoid vigorous activities like working out or anything where you have to bend or lift. Moderate bed-rest for one or two days is an option, but you shouldn’t remain entirely in your bed, as you need to keep moving to keep your muscles and joints healthy.
2. Medication. Ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) or naproxen (Aleve or Naprosyn) can help reduce spinal pain because they help bring down inflammation and swelling. This should only be a temporary solution. If your back pain is severe enough that you have to use these medications consistently for more than 10 days, consult a physician. Taking these medications for a long period comes with the risk of heart problems or bleeding.
3. Physical therapy. Some mild exercises and stretches guided by a professional can help improve the symptoms of spinal back pain. They will help strengthen your back to help correct the issue and prevent future pain points.
What Is Muscular Back Pain?
Muscular back pain is typically caused by muscle or ligament strain. If you push your muscles too hard with heavy lifting, or even through sudden awkward moments, you can strain your muscles and ligaments.
Your spine is surrounded and supported by 40 muscles. They create a network of tendons, ligaments, and muscles that help protect your spine while also giving you the core strength you need to do your everyday tasks.
How Do You Know If Your Back Pain Is Muscular Pain?
A pulled or strained back muscle can either feel like a sudden, sharp pain while you’re moving, or it can appear gradually and isn’t noticeable until days after the initial injury.
The best way to know if back pain is muscular is if your muscles and ligaments feel sore, tight, or achy. Muscular pain gets worse the more you move. When sitting or resting, the pain will completely subside. But, if you move, the pain will come back in the same localized spots.
A strained muscle will be sore to the touch, and, in the worst situations, you will experience local swelling and muscle spasms in the affected area. After resting your muscles, they will feel tight and stiff to move.
What Are the Knots in My Back?
Muscle knots, technically known as myofascial trigger points, are not caused by your muscle actually twisting and kinking into a knot. Instead, knots are a muscle spasm that makes a small portion of your muscle tense up while the rest of your muscle is relaxed.
Muscle knots feel like an aching or throbbing pain. When you touch a muscle knot, it will physically feel swollen, tense, or bumpy in a centralized area of a muscle group. In the worst cases, knots may even become inflamed or swollen around the affected muscle group.
Knots in your muscle are irritations caused by a repetitive motion or being held in an awkward position for too long. This means that an athlete who trains their back muscles for too long or a person hunched over their desk with bad posture can have muscle knots in the same spots and experience the same degree of pain.
How Can I Treat Muscular Back Pain at Home?
A pulled muscle or ligament is a long-term injury that can take weeks, or even months, to heal completely. Here are a few ways to help your body heal during that time and to manage the symptoms of your pain at home:
- Cold pack. The cold will help fight inflammation in your muscles for the first few days of pain. Inflammation is the primary source of pain with a pulled or strained muscle, and it can slow down healing. Use a cold compress for 20 minutes, then rest for 20 minutes without cold.
- Rest. Your body is amazing and can heal and repair itself—if given the time and space to do so. But, if you keep working, lifting, twisting, running, or pushing, your body will never have the time to heal. Limit your activity level and avoid movements that increase pain. Take your time to work up to your previous activity level after the initial pain subsides. Your muscles are weaker than before the injury and need to be strengthened to their previous levels.
- Stretch. As you return to activity, gently stretch your muscles to bring more blood flow to the injured area. Take your time and listen to your body as you stretch. Gently go in and out of each stretch, stopping when your body feels resistance. Avoid bouncing, twisting, or quickly pulling during a stretch, as this can aggravate a healing injury or create a new injury in addition to your existing one.
- Medication. Pain medications do not heal pulled or strained muscles—they only block the pain from being felt. Minor pain medication can provide relief for normal activities, but it will not help your body heal.
If your pain is ever unbearable (you are unable to talk through the pain and/or you are brought to tears when experiencing it) or it is difficult to move, you should see a doctor immediately.
How Do I Know If My Back Pain Is Serious?
Back pain can be a sign of severe damage and should be looked into immediately. If your back pain is partnered with any of the following symptoms, it’s time to go to the emergency room.
- A sudden spike in pain, discomfort, weakness, or numbness
- A loss of bladder or bowel function
- A high fever
- Severe stomach pain
- Unexplained weight loss
If your back pain was caused by a fall or a blow to your back, go to the hospital to ensure there is no significant or lasting damage done to your spine.
If your pain levels remain the same or increase after a week of rest, you may also want to consult a physician.
Can an NMES Unit Help with Lower Back Pain?
A neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) unit sends electrical impulses deep into the nerves of your back, causing muscles to contract. This is different than a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit, which floods the surface nervous system with electrical pulses to reduce the ability of the nervous system to feel pain. Where a TENS unit covers up and dulls the pain you’re experiencing, an NMES unit helps strengthen muscles, even after being injured.
NMES can target and activate deep muscles used for lumbar stimulation. Strengthening these muscles has been shown to help reduce and prevent chronic lower back pain for both muscular and spinal pain in some people.
Get your NMES unit today with this 50% off sale from NeuroMD, and be on the road to a better lower back today.