What Are the Causes of & Remedies for Stiff Back Muscles?

Stiffness felt throughout your back muscles comes from increased tension in your muscle tissue. The stiffness and back pain may occur in your upper back -- the thoracic and cervical regions -- or your lower back -- the lumbar region. Causes of increased muscle tension include trauma, overuse and poor posture. There are multiple approaches for relief, including heat and ice application, medication, massage and exercise.

A therapist assessing the alignment of a client's spine. (Image: aykuterd/iStock/Getty Images)

Tension in Muscles

A man holding his strained lower back. (Image: kosmos111/iStock/Getty Images)

Tension restricts your muscles from properly elongating, and this in turn limits your range of motion, creates a sensation of stiffness and can lead to upper and lower back pain. Increased tension may be due to muscle spasm, active muscle contraction or a more chronic muscle shortening that occurs due to postural factors. Relief of muscle tension allows you to regain your full, functional movement.

Causes of Muscle Tension

A woman hunching over her desk while reading a document. (Image: John Rowley/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Common causes of tense muscles include trauma, overuse or repetitive stress, and poor posture. A sudden traumatic injury from lifting improperly, a fall or an accident -- sometimes referred to as throwing out your back -- typically leads to pain, inflammation and muscle spasms. This is considered an acute muscle strain. Overuse is similar but on a smaller scale. Instead of one injury, overuse involves smaller stresses on your muscles over time from repeating tasks, such as lifting objects for several hours or regularly carrying a heavy backpack. When muscles aren’t given enough time to recover, they fatigue and become stiff. Poor posture, such as sitting hunched over a desk, also results in back stiffness due to some muscles being overworked while others are underworked, leading to an imbalance.

Remedies for Muscle Tension

A woman doing the cat/cow yoga pose to release tension in the spine. (Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Rest, heat and ice application, medication, massage and exercise can help. Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, Actamin) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can treat pain and inflammation, respectively. Consult your doctor before starting any new medications, however, due to potential side effects and drug interactions. Medication, as well as rest, heat, ice and massage, are generally temporary fixes for muscle stiffness, but exercise and activity modification are usually necessary to give you long-term results and aid in preventing future stiffness.

Exercise for Relief and Prevention

People participating in an aerobic work-out at the gym. (Image: Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images)

To improve your muscle balance and prevent future episodes, a combination of exercises can be very beneficial. In general, exercises should consist of aerobic conditioning, stretching and strengthening. By routinely performing exercises, your back muscles will build endurance, gain strength and become more flexible. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of aerobic conditioning every week, along with stretching and strengthening 2 to 3 days per week. You may need to work up to these recommendations over time. Check with your doctor or physical therapist about what exercises are most appropriate for you.


A medical expert examining a patient's back. (Image: aykuterd/iStock/Getty Images)

If your back stiffness worsens or does not resolve, you should consult your doctor. Not all back stiffness is muscular in nature, and it may be caused by joint, disc or nerve problems.

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