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How to Treat a Pulled Back Muscle in 8 Steps

A pulled-back muscle is a commonly experienced injury. You can suffer a pulled-back muscle by lifting something heavy, throwing an object while twisting, or falling unexpectedly. Regardless of how it occurred, it is painful and must be treated as soon as possible. Visit Redefine Healthcare to learn about treatment options for pulled-back muscle and how to prevent this flare-up again. A board-certified and experienced specialist, Dr. Freeman uses the best pain management strategies and rehabilitation methods to eliminate your pain. You can look forward to the highest quality, comprehensive pain treatments, and injury rehabilitation care at New Jersey’s leading spine and joint care center.

A pulled-back muscle in the back or anywhere else in the body is a common term used for a strained muscle. A strain is a muscle or tendon injury that occurs when the tissue stretches or tears. When a ligament, the tough band of tissue that hold bones together, tears, or stretches, it is called a sprain. Sometimes the tear is minor and gets better on its own, while at times, it is a larger, more serious sprain requiring medical attention.

Most people experience back pain due to a pulled muscle. It can begin as a sharp, sudden pain when lifting or bending or it may appear gradually, worsening over several days. This type of injury can range from a minor inconvenience to debilitating pain. It may take several weeks and in some cases even a few months to heal. It can be treated at home, but if the pain is unbearable or affects movement, it is essential to see a doctor.

Muscles of the back

Symptoms of a Pulled-Back Muscle

The symptoms of a pulled-back muscle depend on where the injury has occurred.

The spine is divided into three major sections:

  • The neck
  • Upper back
  • Lower back

For a pulled back muscle in the neck, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Pain in the neck and upper back area
  • Limited range of motion in the neck
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Pain radiating to the shoulders or arms
  • Headache

Pulled muscles in the shoulders and upper back may cause the following symptoms:

  • Pain in the area between the spine and shoulder blade
  • Muscle spasms in the upper back
  • Knots and tightness in the upper back and shoulders
  • Pain when moving the shoulders

Lower back strain injuries lead to these symptoms:

  • Ache and stiffness in lower back muscles
  • Pain that worsens with movement
  • Pain that radiates to the hips and legs
  • Limited range of motion
  • Muscle spasms or cramps in the lower back area
  • Pain when sitting, standing, bending, or walking

What Causes a Pulled-Back Muscle?

Sprains and strains usually result from trauma, stress, and tension. Some of the most common causes include:

  • Falls – If you fall down or hit the ground in an awkward position, it can cause a pulled-back muscle.
  • Repetitive movement – Certain repetitive movements can stress and irritate the back muscles to an extent that it results in strain.
  • Inappropriate lifting technique – Lifting a very heavy object, lifting while twisting, or unsafe lifting techniques can lead to pulled-back muscle. Sometimes parents injure their backs while playing or throwing with their children or carrying them.
  • Excess weight – People who are overweight or gain weight suddenly, particularly pregnant women, are more likely to pull back a muscle due to excessive weight, which puts extra strain on the back muscles.
  • Inactive lifestyle – A sedentary lifestyle can weaken the back, which increases the risk of injuries.
  • Poor posture – Poor posture when sitting or bad form during athletic activities can lead to pulled-back muscles.

While being out of shape or sudden, unpredicted movements contribute to the problem. At times even well-conditioned athletes and young children also experience lower back pain.

Diagnosing a Pulled-Back Muscle

Having your condition accurately diagnosed is the most important step toward treating it. Mild strains and sprains can be identified based on your symptoms, medical history, and a thorough physical examination by a healthcare provider.

In case of severe strains and sprains, especially the ones that cause weakness or loss of function, the doctor recommends an x-ray or an MRI scan to rule out fracture or herniation of the disc as a cause of back pain.

Treating a Pulled Back Muscle in 8 Steps

Regardless of where it has taken place, a pulled muscle is generally treated the same way. However, it is best to consult a doctor or a pain management specialist before trying to treat it on your own as symptoms of other injuries, such as a broken bone or a herniated disc, are often similar to sprains and strains.

Your doctor may recommend the following home treatments and self-care steps to reduce pain and ease symptoms of a pulled muscle:

Ice Therapy

Cold helps to reduce inflammation which is the primary source of pain in the initial days. Applying ice can reduce blood flow to the injured area, which numbs the pain and reduces inflammation and swelling. The faster you apply a cold pack to a pulled-back muscle, the quicker you can start the healing process and keep the pain to a minimum.

Put an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables as soon as the injury occurs to keep down the pain, inflammation, and swelling. Make sure to wrap the ice pack in a towel before putting it on the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Ice therapy can be used after every two or three hours depending on the severity of pain and inflammation.

Heat Therapy

A few days after cold therapy, you can begin with heat therapy or alternate between cold and heat to reduce pain and increase the circulation of blood. Applying heat before changing positions or starting an activity soothes the strained or stiff muscles and connective tissues and also eases pain related to movement.

Apply a heat pack for 15 to 20 minutes, wrapped in a towel or cloth to avoid a burn. You can use heat therapy four to five times a day, depending on how well it is working for you.


Compressing the muscles is an effective way to keep the swelling down, which in turn keeps your pain in control. Applying compression bandages or using an active compression system gives the damaged tissues a chance to repair themselves more quickly.

Compression bandages can be used for all other body parts except the lower back, where you will probably require a back brace to help the muscles heal. You must not put the back brace on too tightly or wear it all the time, as the muscles need blood flow to heal.


You must limit your activities and avoid movements that increase pain for at least a few days or till you start feeling better. However, this does not mean you should stay in bed all the time, as resting for longer than necessary can weaken the muscles. It is best to gradually build your strength back up as soon as possible after the initial pain has subsided.

Try lying on your back with a pillow under your knee or on the floor with your knees bent. Returning to the previous level of activity prevents the muscles from growing weak


Staying immobile or restricting all activity is not healthy. The muscles can become weak and cause even more stiffness and pain. Experts suggest that as you return to activity, gentle stretching exercises can boost tissue healing and bring more blood flow to the injured area. Stretching keeps the joints flexible and muscles in good condition and strengthens them gradually.

Incorporating gentle stretching exercises into your routine can restore mobility and protect you from future injuries. Applying heat to the affected area before stretching can also help.

Over-The-Counter Medications

Acetaminophen and anti-inflammatory medicines are easily available over-the-counter pain-relieving medications that keep the pain and inflammation down. However, it is essential to understand these medications do not play any role in the healing process and only help you return to normal activities and routine by keeping the discomfort down. It is advised to use medication sparingly, as pain is an important indicator throughout the recovery process.

These medications also have many side effects and should not be taken long-term. It is best to consult a doctor to determine the type and dosage of medication appropriate for your specific condition.

Strengthening Exercises

As the pain eases, adding strengthening exercises to your routine is essential. Your muscles can weaken with too much rest or prolonged lack of activity, and it can actually slow down recovery.

Strengthening exercises make your muscles work harder than usual, which increases their strength, size, power, and endurance. They restore your mobility and protect your back from future injuries too.


A massage is an effective way to increase the flow of blood toward the injured tissues. Careful manipulation of the body’s soft tissues increases blood circulation and relaxes the tensed muscles, improving the range of motion and easing the pain.

Massage therapy also releases endorphins that lessen the pain signals in the nervous system.

Some pain and stiffness are not unusual for a week or two as your pulled muscle heals and gets back to shape. If your symptoms do not improve or you continue to face problems performing routine activities, visit your doctor.

Treatment for Lower Back Strain

A low back strain may be a sign that back muscles are deconditioned and cannot effectively support the spine and the upper body weight. Strains in lower back muscles can be treated with light, low-impact exercise to maintain range of motion and build muscle strength. Walking, cycling and swimming are also effective ways to stay active while recovering from lower back muscle strain.

Keeping the low back muscles active with stretching and strengthening exercising can help to reduce overall pain and prevent future complications. After recovering from a pulled-back muscle, it is essential to control future injuries by practicing good posture and warming up properly before any activity.

When to See a Doctor for a Pulled-Back Muscle?

Lumbar or lower muscle strains and sprains are not unusual in the lower back as it supports the weight of the upper body and helps it move, twist, and bend. A sprain occurs when the ligaments are torn from their attachments, resulting in debilitating pain.

This pain can be managed with self-care treatments and pain-relieving medications. However, if your low back pain does not get better with cold or heat therapy, massage, or stretching and lasts for more than one to two weeks, seek medical attention.

Call your doctor immediately if your back pain is accompanied by any of these symptoms:

  • Abdominal throbbing
  • Difficulty maintaining balance or walking
  • Severe pain that continues for more than a few days
  • Incontinence
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Chills and fever
  • Weight loss
  • Overall weakness
  • Numbness
  • Pain that radiates into your legs, especially past your knees

Some symptoms of low back pain are similar to those of life-threatening conditions. It is best to get them checked by a doctor to prevent complications.

Read more: Sharp Stabbing Pain in the Lower Left Side of the Back

Do not let a pulled-back muscle keep you from participating in the activities you love. Dr. Eric Freeman helps you understand your condition and offers the best advice regarding your spine and pain disorders. He uses the most advanced and minimally invasive treatment methods to manage your pain safely and effectively while preventing future conditions. His skilled and trained team ensures that you feel at ease with your treatment and get the highest quality care possible that improves your quality of life in the long run.

Page Updated on Dec 12, 2022 by Dr. Freeman (Pain Management Specialist) of Redefine Healthcare


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Dr. Eric D. Freeman

Dr. Eric D. Freeman is a top-rated, best-in-class pain management doctor. He is a nationally recognized pain relief specialist and is among the top pain care doctors in New Jersey and the country. He is an award-winning expert and contributor to prominent media outlets.

Dr. Eric D. Freeman has been recognized for his thoughtful, thorough, modern approach to treating chronic pain. He has been named a “top pain management doctor in New Jersey” and one of “America’s Top Physicians” for advanced sports injury treatments.

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