Acute Back pain caused by joint sprain

Fact Sheets

Common cause of Back pain and Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain is by far the most common things seen by an Osteopath, Physiotherapist or remedial massage therapist. Joint sprains can happen anywhere from the top of the spine in the neck to the lower back and tailbone area. Joint sprains are a very common cause of acute back pain. Sprains of joints in your back can vary in severity. Pain can be very mild through to acute pain that is severe and debilitating.

How does it happen?
Joints are where two bone meet and allow movement. We have literally hundreds of joints in our body with more than half of them located in or very close to the spine. These little joints in our spine are essential for almost all movements of our body. Walking, driving, moving your arms and legs, sitting, turning your head even breathing can rely on movement of many of these little joints.

Just like any other joints in our body they can be over-extended, overused, strained and injured. Sometimes we don’t realise at the time that we have placed extra load on them and strained them. A few hours later as inflammation builds they start to give us pain or we wake up and are not able to move properly. Unlike when we sprain our ankle for example we can not necessarily take our weight off these spinal joints or not move them until they get better.

Symptoms of acute joint sprains in the spine.

  • Acute back pain that comes on over a short period of time (a day or overnight) can be intense.
  • Sharp pain with movement – like a little knife, pinch or spasm
    • Specific movements irritate particular joints. Bad sprains are irritated by all movements
  • Spasm and contraction of surrounding muscles
  • Breathing, cough, sneeze can cause intense pain especially if rib joints are sprained.
  • Usually the pain is worse on one side
  • Your posture may change as your body tries to move your weight off the area or joints. This is easy to notice if they are in your lower back

How do they happen?

  • Tension builds up over time due to postural strain, poor flexibility, inactivity, poorly executed exercise, unusual increased activity, “wear and tear” or a combination of issues.
  • An “incident” that causes the sprain can often involve bending, lifting or twisting. Sometimes the incident may not be that significant at the time. People often wake the next day with the onset of the symptoms. Eg: waking with a rye neck after a weekend of painting.

What happens in a joint sprain

  • The affected joint/s and the capsule around the joint/s become inflamed and irritated
  • The inflammation irritates ligaments.
  • Inflammation collects in the joint space, which causes acute pain especially if you try to do movements involving this joint, or put pressure or increased weight through the joint.
  • The inflammation of the joint will cause surrounding muscles to spasm to protect the area. This spasm causes further pain and limitation to movement.

The good news

Most of the time there is no major long lasting damage to the joints, muscles or any nerves. They can usually recover and heal well.

The bad news

  • They can be very painful and make it very hard for you to move which can be scary
  • Depending on the severity can cause sharp pain for 2 – 10 days and then ongoing stiffness in the area that may persist for weeks or months.
  • Once you have sprained a joint/s you will probably have re-occurring episodes if you do not attended to the contributing factors and the muscle spasm that has occurred.

What to do

  • Seek professional advice – See your Osteopath so they can diagnose the condition properly and make sure this is what has happened especially if there has been any trauma or falls etc as you may require further investigations. Some other back complaints can also present in a similar manner but require different treatment, only a professional will be able to assess and diagnose this for you properly.
  • Treatment – evidence suggests treatment aimed at gently restoring the range of motion to the joints and controlling muscle spasm can be effective
  • Your osteopath can guide you on taking measures to reduce contributing factors such as poor posture, chronic muscular tension, poor sports technique, poor or incorrect lifting, poor desk/office set up etc
  • Your osteopath will show you specific stretches or movements which can help to get to better quickly and avoid re-irritation
  • Take measures to reduce and control inflammation, such as ice, natural and pharmaceutical anti- inflammatory medications (these should only be prescribed by a health professional)

What not to do

  • Try to diagnose or treat it yourself.
  • Put heat on it – this may temporarily make muscles feel good – but you will only contribute to the inflammation going on.
  • Try to stretch it out or do exercises or stretches that have been prescribed to someone else as their condition may not be exactly the same or involve the same joints. Incorrect stretches and exercises can actually make the situation far worse.
  • Go to bed or lie on the couch and not move – this will often only cause more stiffness, gentle and safe movement in cases where there has been no trauma is beneficial.

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