Debilitating back cramps: causes and treatment

Back pain is a common ailment. You have probably had back pain at one point in your life – chronic or acute. It can easily feel uncomfortable or leave you in extreme agony. Debilitating back pain can make you curl up and unable to cope with your daily activities.

If you have severe back disease, it can cause temporary, recurring, or chronic pain. Back cramps can cause a person to become immobile and have difficulty completing everyday tasks without groaning in pain.

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What is back spasm?

Back spasm is an involuntary contraction of the back muscles. A certain movement can trigger a back cramp. Most of the time, cramps occur due to muscle weakness, overuse, or injury.

Chronic back cramps can be the result of an underlying medical condition. If muscle spasms are particularly severe, they can be caused by nerve irritation or damage.

Common causes

Muscle spasms can occur for a number of reasons. Here are some common causes.

Muscle strain

A muscle strain is an injury that can result from overuse. Sudden forces can also cause acute muscle strain injuries. Rotating movements, for example, can cause acute back strain.

A common place for pulled muscles is the lower back. In addition to sudden pain and persistent muscle soreness, pulled muscles can also cause painful back cramps.

Facet joint arthrosis

Facet joints are the bones that connect the different parts of your spine. In facet joint osteoarthritis, the cartilage surrounding these joints breaks down, causing pain. When bone spurs develop, nerve irritation can also occur.

Degenerative disc disease

Over time, your body will experience wear and tear. Aging puts stress on many parts of the body, including the joints. Degenerative disc disease is a type of arthritis of the spine in which the joint cartilage breaks down. This type of degeneration doesn’t always cause symptoms. If so, the pain can be severe and possibly cause cramps.

disc prolapse

The different bones in your spine are separated and cushioned by intervertebral discs. When a herniated disc occurs, it bulges from its original location and puts pressure on the surrounding nerves. This causes pain and can also lead to cramps. You can have a herniated disc due to repetitive stress or traumatic injury. Herniation can also occur due to aging.

Signs of serious illness

Back pain is sometimes a sign of a serious illness. These symptoms are warning signs and should prompt you to seek medical attention. If you experience several of these together, consider it an emergency and see someone immediately.


If you have back pain or cramps and cannot control your bladder or bowel movements, it is a sign that the nerves in your spine are badly damaged. Incontinence with back pain can be a symptom of:

  • Severe nerve compression
  • infection


You may feel a tingling sensation if you sit too long with your feet under your body. The feeling can also be a symptom of sciatica. However, if you experience numbness in the groin or buttock area, you may have serious spinal disease.

Weakness in the legs

Sudden weakness is a cause for concern. If it occurs with back pain, it can be a symptom of a severe spinal disease that is affecting the nerves.

Radiating pain

Pain traveling down the body to the legs can also be a sign of severe nerve compression.

Sharp pain

If you describe your back pain as sharp, it might not even be back pain. Sharp pain in this area can be a symptom of a muscle injury. It can also be a sign that problems with an internal organ like the kidneys are brewing.

Is It Sciatica Pain?

Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve in your spine becomes irritated and causes pain. Because this extra long nerve stretches across your legs, it can cause pain anywhere from your lower back to your toes. The pain can be mild or severe.

It’s usually a symptom of something else. For example, a herniated disc can lead to compression or inflammation of the sciatic nerve. It’s also one of the most common reasons for this type of referred nerve pain. Other conditions that can cause sciatica include:


To diagnose what can cause painful back cramps, doctors will take your medical history. They will also ask you to describe the pain and any other symptoms you are having.

A doctor may ask you to perform movements to assess imbalances or weakness. You can also do imaging tests, such as:

  • X-rays
  • Electromyography, to test nerve impulses
  • Myelogram
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Blood tests


Treatment for back cramps involves treating the underlying cause. Treatment can also vary depending on whether the pain is chronic or acute.

Acute pain

Treatment of acute back pain can include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Topical pain creams or gels
  • Heat and cold therapy to relieve inflammation
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Stretch as recommended by your doctor

Rest can help when you have a sudden, painful back spasm. Overall, however, doctors do not recommend longer periods of rest for either acute or chronic back pain.

Chronic pain

Non-invasive treatments for chronic back pain include:

  • Physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles and to resolve muscle weakness and imbalances
  • Relaxation strategies
  • Lifestyle changes, including improving posture
  • Steroid injections or nerve blocks
  • Pain relievers, including NSAIDs and opioids (note that opioids are associated with a risk of addiction)
  • Heat and cold therapy
  • Gentle exercise

Some people also find relief through alternative therapies such as acupuncture.

Surgery is an option, but it is often the last resort. There is no guarantee that surgery will help relieve symptoms.

Combination therapy

Doctors often treat back pain with a combination of therapies. Combining different treatments like physical therapy and steroid injections can give better results.


While painful back cramps can interfere with your daily activities, it is possible to live with back pain. Some strategies that can help you cope with and recover from back pain include:

  • Minimize the time you spend sitting
  • Maintain good posture when sitting and standing
  • Good shape when lifting heavy objects or exercising
  • Sleep on a comfortable, supportive mattress
  • Avoid sleeping on your stomach
  • Strengthening the back and abdominal muscles
  • Do sports, avoid strenuous activities or movements that place strain on the back
  • Warm up before training with dynamic stretching exercises

What about a chiropractor?

A chiropractor may be able to help you with your back cramps and pain. However, it is important to see a doctor first. Some chiropractic treatments, such as spinal manipulation, can help with chronic pain problems, but are not suitable for certain conditions such as spinal arthritis.

A word from Verywell

If debilitating back cramps and back pain keep interrupting your life, it’s time to see a doctor. Even if you think the pain was due to poor posture or some other minor problem, speak to your doctor.

They deserve to be relieved of pain. A doctor can help you figure out the cause of the problem and if there is an underlying cause that requires specific treatment.