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How Can Tight Muscles Result in Back Pain? 5 Reasons Why

No matter who you are, we can all relate to back pain. One common cause of back pain is tight muscles. But, how can stiff or tight muscles cause back pain? 

With so many different things possibly being the cause of muscle tension, there could be a chance that your stiff muscles are the reason you're experiencing back pain.

Muscle Tension and Pain

You know that agony of your legs feeling like you can’t walk normally because your muscles are so sore or painful? That’s muscle tension for you.

Muscle tension and pain can be a result of many physical factors, such as exercising too frequently, a compensation-based injury, an acute injury, lack of blood flow due to sedentary lifestyle, and more.

It can also be influenced by psychological factors, such as stress, anxiety, and restlessness. You may find your muscle tension and pain to restrict movement, cause cramping, or just general aches.

No matter your symptom, muscle tension generally occurs when one or more muscles in the body remains contracted for a prolonged length of time. 

How Can Stiff and Tight Muscles Result in Back Pain?

If any of your major leg muscles  — the hamstrings, quadriceps, and hip flexors are tight, this usually means they are in a shortened state. If they are tight and shortened, this can exert significant pressure on the lower back resulting in back pain.

For example, when you bend forward at the waist to touch your toes, you often feel a stretch in your hamstrings. But if your hamstrings are stiff, you will have to utilize your lower back muscles to help bend, which is not proper biomechanics.

Another example of a stiff and tight muscle resulting in back pain is the hip flexor. When you are experiencing tightness stretching your hip flexors in extension, a lack of hip flexion can put more pressure within areas of your spine.

5 Reasons You Have a Stiff Back

Whether you are dealing with a stiff back from an acute injury, or you have a chronic stiff back, understanding the reasons you have a stiff back should be one of your primary intentions.

If any of these 5 reasons you have a stiff back apply to you individually, you’ll then be able to undergo the proper treatment routine to alleviate your back pain.

5. Inadequate Stretching

We can all agree that we need to stretch more. Inadequate stretching can directly result in decreased mobility, and with decreased mobility, we may increase our time spent being sedentary, such as watching TV or working on computer for long periods of time.

Staying in a seated position throughout the day in a less-than-optimal desk chair or car seat can bring on the pain if you’re not stretching frequently. Since driving, working, and other daily tasks are unavoidable, inadequate stretching can be a large component of a stiff back.

4. Inflammation in Spine

If your spine becomes inflamed due to a fall, sports injury, or biomechanical issue, a stiff back is almost a certainty. This may entail swelling, pain, and/or inability to move/rotate/bend at your spine.

Inflammation in the spine has the potential to be a serious ailment, so it's important to recognize what area of the spine your inflammation and pain falls in - your lumbar spine (lower back), your thoracic spine (mid-back), and your cervical spine (upper back/neck). 

Sometimes, this can even cause pain to the tailbone. If this happens, you'll need to practice different exercises for tailbone pain to soothe it. 

While inflammation in any of the three spinal areas can cause a stiff back, addressing both the root cause and the symptoms is necessary.

3. Improper Lifting Techniques

For those of you that enjoy lifting weights for exercise, performing yard work, or perhaps work in construction, you probably have experienced a stiff back as a result of improper lifting techniques.

When working with and lifting heavy items, you may have a tendency to bend predominantly at the waist and use your arms to reach and then lift. However, this technique not only produces less power, but also could be why you have a stiff back, as lifting from your legs is more efficient.

Even if the lifting doesn't hurt the back, improper technique promotes poor posture. Poor posture's effect on back pain is proven and evident, so you can be indirectly as well if you don't know how to lift properly. 

Next time you go to pick up something heavy off the ground, whether that is a barbell at the gym or a sandbag for gardening, make sure you drop your hips and use your hips and knees to lower your waist first, then reach to lift. 

2. Dehydration

How much water should you drink a day? We’ve all heard the 8 glass a day rule at some point, and for good reason, because dehydration can negatively impact your health and wellness.

Specifically, dehydration can cause tight muscles and a stiff back. Water comprises a large percentage of your muscle mass, and without water as the main mode of transport, your muscles can be more vulnerable to fatigue or injury.  

1. Tight Hip Muscles

Tight muscles due to either an overabundance of sitting or exercise-induced tightness can also lead to low back pain. If your hip muscles are stuck in a flexed position, tugging on the front of the hips, it can move both pelvis and lumbar spine forward, placing excessive tension on the spine.

When you are experiencing tightness and feel the need to stretch your hip flexors in extension (straightening at the joint), a lack of hip flexion (bending at the joint) can put more pressure within areas of your spine, leading to stiff or tight back muscles.

Stretches to Relieve a Stiff Back

If you are experiencing a stiff back, you do not have to endure chronic pain. There are several dynamic back stretches you can try today.

Try the half splits yoga pose to target your hamstring by following these steps:

  • Start in a low lunge with the right leg forward and back knee resting on the floor. Rest the fingertips on the floor.
  • Move the hands backward as you extend and straighten the right leg forward. Rest the right heel on the floor and flex the foot with the toes pointed to the sky. Try to keep the hips in line with the back knee.
  • Exhale and fold the torso forward from the waist. Breathe and hold the pose.

Another good stretch is the Crescent yoga pose to target the hip flexors:

  • Start in a low lunge with the right leg forward and back knee resting on the floor.
  • Raise your back knee off the ground and bring your hands onto your right knee and your right knee directly over your right ankle.
  • Inhale and raise your arms above your head, keeping the arms in line with your ears.
  • To deepen into the lunge press firmly into your feet as you allow your hips to shift forward. 

Over-The-Counter Remedies for Back Tension

Sometimes back tension can be very intense and require over the counter remedies to alleviate pain and/or inflammation. Acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol) or Ibuprofen (i.e. Advil) can both be valuable over the counter remedies if the pain is unbearable at times.

There are also holistic supplements, such as Arnica and Turmeric, that have been proven to help with inflammation. 

Topical treatments can also be helpful, with ingredients such as menthol and camphor that have analgesic properties.