Back strain

Originally Published: February 10, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: July 1, 2011
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Dear Alice,

While bending over to pick up a rather heavy box, I felt (and heard) a ripping sound. Much pain ensued and over the course of several hours my back became stiff and painful to the point of being unable to stand fully erect. What happened and should I see a doctor? --Spineless

Dear Spineless,

Back pain can be a real pain in the neck…and back! It's difficult to know exactly what happened with your back. Back pain has multiple causes — strains and sprains being two examples. It's also not clear from your question whether or not you are still experiencing pain or how long the pain lasted. Your best bet is to visit a healthcare provider just to be on the safe side.

Generally, back pain will lessen within 72 hours, and eventually go away within 2 weeks. However, chronic, disabling back pain may be a symptom of something more serious. Certain cases of the back blues may require medical attention of a health care provider. It is highly recommended to see your health care provider if:

  • You feel numbness, tingling, or loss of control in your arms or legs — this may signal damage to the spinal cord.
  • The pain increases when you cough or bend forward at the waist — this can be the sign of a herniated disc.
  • The pain in your back extends downward along the back of the leg.
  • The pain is accompanied by fever, burning during urination, or strong-smelling urine.
  • You have urine or fecal incontinence.
  • You have dull pain in one area of your spine when lying in or getting out of bed.
  • You have a fever or unintentional weight loss.

Most people have or will experience back pain sometime in their life. In fact, back pain is the second most reported complaint next to headaches. This could be a result of prolonged bad habits or the result of an acute injury, such as the one you describe in your question. As mentioned above, two causes of back pain include strains and sprains. Symptoms of sprains and strains include:

  • Pain that worsens with movement.
  • Muscle cramping or spasms (sudden uncontrollable muscle contractions).
  • Decreased function and/or range of motion of the joint (difficulty walking, bending forward or sideways, or standing straight).
  • In some cases, the person may feel a pop or tear at the time of the injury.

Treatment for sprains and strains are similar. You can reduce the pain and muscle spasms by resting and using ice packs and compression, especially in the first 24-48 hours after the injury. An over the counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or naproxen sodium (Aleve) may be recommended to help reduce pain and swelling. It is recommended to return to your normal activities 24-48 hours after the injury (without inducing any pain, of course). This is because prolonged bed rest often prolongs symptoms and delays recovery. Most people improve in about 2 weeks.

Again, seeing a health care provider may be your best bet. If you are a student at Columbia, you can make an appointment to see a health care provider by calling Medical Services at x4-2284 or by logging in to Open Communicator. Next time you have to lift something heavy, you may want to ask a friend to help back you up.

Alice