What does “throwing out your back” really mean?

“I threw my back out!” If you haven’t said it, you’ve probably heard it. But what does it really mean? “Throwing out your back” isn’t a medical term or even an accurate description. People often use this phrase to describe:

  • A twinge in the lower back that causes tenderness and discomfort
  • Sudden onset of lower back pain that often occurs after physical activity, like lifting heavy objects, moving furniture, shoveling snow, or even normal household cleaning
  • Lower back pain so intense it hurts to make the slightest movement

The pain may be concentrated in a specific area or spread out. There may be achiness, numbness and tingling in your buttocks and legs. You may even be unable to perform your normal, day-to-day activities for several days.

How can I protect my lower back?

One of the best ways to prevent lower back pain is to keep your back muscles strong. You can also protect your lower back and prevent lower back pain by:

  • Staying active—Low-impact cardiovascular exercise, such as power walking, stationary biking, swimming and water aerobics, helps build strong and supportive muscles throughout your body and strengthens your core muscles. This goes a long way in protecting and stabilizing your lower back.
  • Eating healthy—We all know good nutrition and a balanced diet are important to our overall health. Your bones, muscles and other structures in your spine need proper nutrition so they can be strong enough to support the body and perform their functions. The following minerals and vitamins can help you maintain a healthy spine:
    • Magnesium found in green leafy vegetables, fish, beans, seeds, nuts, avocados and bananas can reduce muscle tension.
    • Calcium, and vitamins D and K are also helpful to our bones. These nutrients can be found in dairy products, green leafy vegetables and fish.
    • Vitamin A, iron and B-complex vitamins support a healthy spine and nerve function. They can be found in dark green vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, carrots and sweet potatoes.
  • Stretching—We all know the importance of stretching before and after exercise. Stretching regularly, beyond preparing for and cooling down from workouts, is equally important. Integrating stretching into your daily routine keeps your muscles and ligaments flexible and helps you avoid stiffness, restricted movement and pain. It also reduces stress on your joints and improves the flow of blood and nutrients throughout your body.
  • Avoiding heavy lifting—Lifting is a part of our daily lives and one of the most common causes of lower back pain. If you must lift something heavy, make sure your leg muscles do most of the work. You can do this by bending your knees and keeping your back straight. You should also avoid twisting your lower back. Pivot your feet and hips instead. Once you’ve lifted the object, hold it close to your chest while you straighten your spine.

When should I see a doctor?

Lower back pain from muscle strain typically goes away within 1-2 weeks and shouldn’t cause other symptoms. If you experience pain that lasts longer or other symptoms, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

Want to learn more about low back pain?

Find the recording of our webinar, “Protecting your lower back and improving pain,” where Magellan Healthcare’s Nikki Darnell, RN, BSN, director, clinical care services; Katie Maher, RN, BSN, senior manager, clinical care services; and I delve into low back pain causes and symptoms, how low back pain is diagnosed and treated, and steps you can take to protect your lower back and improve pain here.