Overcoming Back Spasms

My journey with back spasms began in earnest in the fall of 2008.  At 37 years old, and with my pregnant wife watching, I experienced a crippling spasm that left me writhing in pain on our living room floor until dawn when I managed to crawl to an urgent care facility. From this moment on, my life became one of monthly episodes that culminated in the spring of 2015 when it seemed every move I made had the potential to trigger that awful "slip" in a lower back muscle that would culminate in a spasm and a trip to the hospital for the all too familiar injections.

Until this time I had been an absolute physical machine. Since my teens I had lifted weights and ran daily and enjoyed fantastic health. My training, however, was not considerate of the lower back.  I did a lot of powerlifting moves; squats, power cleans and very little abdominal work.  Perhaps an occasional set of sit ups, then back to the bench press.  At 6' and 200 lbs I was not built to withstand the daily pounding runs over uneven terrain that I so much enjoyed. I had experienced a few bouts of back ache before 37, and even some minor spasms that should have warned me of potential risk. Looking back, it was a few days after a particularly grueling cross country run and a day of house painting that the huge spasm occurred.  Not paying heed, I continued to run and lift weights in the same manner as a youth, not yet making the correlation between my increasingly frequent and painful spasms and my approach to health and fitness.

I consulted doctors and chiropractors and all were of the opinion that my spine was just fine and the problem was muscular.  This made sense because whenever my spasmodic episodes would occur, I would return to full health and mobility within a week.  Spinal cord injuries, they said, would not bounce back that way.  None the less, the problem got worse and worse and I was now experiencing spasmodic episodes monthly.

Here is where I feel that things began to go wrong.  In my increasingly frequent visits to doctors and urgent care facilities, I began to hear the same advice repeated; “Don't do anything strenuous.Stay off your feet and above all take plenty of pills” (naprosen, flexeril, vicodin, etc.).   I virtually stopped exercise, drank heavily, and tip-toed through my day trying not to trigger a spasm.  I was depressed and worried about the future.  Now with two children, I wondered if I would be wheelchair bound before they were teens, instead of playing in the surf and shooting baskets as I had always envisioned.

By the fall of 2014, I was in terrible shape both mentally and physically and my back was now going out completely several times a month.  One day I ran into an old friend from high school that had been forced I to early retirement from the police department because of back issues. His was way worse than mine and had culminated in surgery some ten years prior. He looked great, and said his back pain was nearly gone.  Although we suffered from different problems, his being spinal and mine muscular, one piece of advice resonated deeply; "Get back to the gym and train hard", he said, advising me to avoid anything that strains the lower back (squats, cleans, etc) and focus on upper back strength.  "A strong upper back is a strong lower back" is the phrase I carried forward.  That weekend I was watching a football game and saw an athlete simply sitting on the grass, legs spread out in front of him, totally relaxed.  I tried to sit like that and couldn't straighten my legs without risk of pain.  "Here's my starting point", I said to myself.   

Next came a visit to a new chiropractor, a young athletic guy who likewise advised to drop the pills and the sedentary lifestyle and focus on getting back in shape.  "Train your abs as a priority and do lots of pullups" he said.  That same week I returned to the gym.  No running, no deadlifts, no picking heavy stuff off the floor.  I began by simply sitting on the floor with my legs in front of me and counted my age (44).  I found hanging leg lifts to provide the perfect ab exercise for the low back as it provided no lumbar strain as did sit ups, and I began to hit them hard first thing every workout.  In my 20s I could do 15 pullups with ease, now I struggled for one.  No matter, I continued week after week doing the same stretching, leg lifts, pullups or just hanging and eventually incorporating additional movements and stretches as my form returned, taking care to avoid movement to that place undue strain on my lower back.

In March of 2015, I was feeling better.  One morning I was simply bending over and I felt that telltale slip in the back again that in the past led to spasms.  But now it was different; while still sore it felt as if my core, from my abs to my hip abductors, were providing stability and that it would not spasm. From this point forward, my spasms stopped completely.  As I write this in June of 2016, I am now 15 months since my last episode.  My back has had a few periods of stiffness since then, but no more than any other active 45 year old, and no more spasms. I'm back up to 10 pullups, my abs feel strong and I'm more flexible than I was a decade ago.  The other day, I ran with the kids and ran hard.  A day after, I was standing on one foot trying to put on a shoe (a no-no, always sit or lean for support) and I felt the slip again.  Just a reminder, I thought, and inside I knew a spasm would not occur and it didn’t.  Still, it was a reminder just the same.  One is never out of the woods with this affliction, but it can be tamed.

If this is like your case please take this advice; get back on your feet and start aggressively working to strengthen your body and fight back against the spasm.  Train the muscles opposite of your spine (your lower abs), stretch at the end of your workout, do lots of core work and upper back exercises and believe that you will get past it.  You will. - Cyrus



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