What Does It Mean When You 'Throw Your Back Out'?

When a character in a movie throws their back out, there are a few dramatic tools filmmakers use to clue the audience members in. It starts off as something routine enough. You might see the soon-to-be injured person bend down to lift something heavy – or perhaps they're using slow and methodical twisting movements to practice their golf swing.

Our first indication that something has gone terribly wrong is often the loud crackling effect the movie's sound engineers superimposed into the scene. This is often followed by a loud yelp, a theatrical grimace, and both hands quickly flying to cradle their lower back. Cut to a scene where the injured party is laid up on the couch, and the message is clear: that person has thrown their back out.

Unless you've had personal experience with a thrown-out back, that is often the extent of the information people have on the subject. But what does the injury actually entail? And besides being waited on hand and foot — as you see in the movies — how do you recover from it?

Symptoms and causes

Everyday Health explains that the phrase can encompass a few different injuries, but when people say "I threw my back out," they are usually referring to the abrupt onset of acute back pain most commonly caused by muscle spasms, strain, or an injury to one of the vertebral discs that make up the spinal column.

Symptoms vary depending on the severity of the injury, but can include pain and stiffness in the back, limited range of motion, and involuntary muscle spasms that can occur whether you're actively moving or laying down and resting (per Medical News Today). The pain and stiffness — which usually lasts for 10-14 days — may also make standing upright a challenge.

With muscle strain being the most common cause of a thrown-out back, it can happen during any activity that puts stress on the lower back, Healthline points out. Trying to lift something too heavy, not using proper lifting techniques, and overstretching or twisting the back are common causes of the injury. Movements of this nature can cause damage to the muscles, connective tissues, ligaments, and blood vessels — and may even create small tears in the vertebral discs – which can trigger nerve pain and inflammation.

Treatment for a thrown-out back

If you think you've thrown your back out, and the pain hasn't improved within 24 hours, then call your doctor. You'll want to call your doctor immediately if you're experiencing severe pain or pain that is accompanied by other symptoms like numbness or weakness in the legs, fever, or difficulty controlling your bladder. Your doctor may order additional testing like an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI (per Healthline).

Otherwise, the best thing you can do to treat a strained back is rest. Pillows, or a rolled-up towel that acts as a lumbar roll, can be used to support your back when you're sitting or lying down. Everyday Health also recommends finding some relief by laying on the floor on your stomach with your cheek pressed to the ground. This can help you achieve a more neutral position and relieve some of the pressure you may be feeling.

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can also help to reduce the pain and inflammation. For the first 24-48 hours after you've sustained the injury, it's best to apply cloth-covered ice packs to the affected area in 15-minute increments. After that, you can switch to heating a pad.

Healthline recommends avoiding sleeping on your stomach. Once the pain has subsided, ease into movement with gentle stretching; however, strenuous movements that involve twisting, bending, and lifting should be avoided for now. Future problems can be avoided by maintaining a healthy weight, stretching before physical activity, and always remembering to lift with your knees (per Everyday Health).