Skip to main content


URMC / Encyclopedia / Content

Lumbar Strain

What is a lumbar strain?

A lumbar strain is an injury to the lower back. This results in damaged tendons and muscles that can spasm and feel sore. The lumbar vertebra make up the section of the spine in your lower back.

What causes lumbar strain?

Injury can damage the tendons and muscles in the lower back. Pushing and pulling sports, such as weight lifting or football, can lead to a lumbar strain. In addition, sports that require sudden twisting of the lower back, such as in tennis, basketball, baseball, and golf, can lead to this injury. Certain risk factors, such as excessive lower back curvature, forward-tilted pelvis, weak back, or abdominal muscles, and tight hamstrings, can increase the risk for this injury.

What are the symptoms of lumbar strain?

The following are the most common symptoms of a lumbar strain. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Sudden lower back pain
  • Spasms in the lower back that result in more severe pain
  • Lower back feels sore to the touch

The symptoms of a lumbar strain may resemble other conditions and medical problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is lumbar strain diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnostic procedures for low back pain may include the following. However, during many initial assessments and exams, specialized tests aren't usually recommended.

  • X-ray. A diagnostic test that produces images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan). This is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows details of the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. A CT scan shows detailed images of bones, muscles, fat, and organs.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • Radionuclide bone scan. A nuclear imaging technique that uses a very small amount of radioactive material, which is injected into the bloodstream to be detected by a scanner. This test shows blood flow to the bone and cell activity within the bone.
  • Electromyogram (EMG). A test to evaluate nerve and muscle function.

How is lumbar strain treated?

Specific treatment for a lumbar strain will be discussed with you by your healthcare provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the injury
  • Your tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, and therapies
  • Expectation for the course of the injury
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Rest
  • Ice packs and/or heat and compression applied to the back
  • Exercises (to strengthen the abdominal muscles)
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises (for the lower back as it heals)
  • Education regarding the use and wearing of appropriate protective equipment

Medicines, such as anti-inflammatories and spinal injections, may also be used to relieve pain and inflammation.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if any of the following happen:

  • You’re unable to stand or walk.
  • You have a temperature over 101.0°F (38.3°C)
  • You have frequent, painful, or bloody urination.
  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • You have a sharp, stabbing pain.
  • Your pain is constant.
  • You have pain or numbness in your leg.
  • You feel pain in a new area of your back.
  • You notice that the pain isn’t decreasing after more than a week.

Contact your healthcare provider immediately for the following:

  • Pain radiating down the leg
  • Pain that is accompanied by fever, weakness in the leg, or loss of control of the bladder or bowels

Living with lumbar strain

Cold reduces swelling. Both cold and heat can reduce pain. Protect your skin by placing a towel between your body and the ice or heat source.

  • For the first few days, apply an ice pack for 15 to 20 minutes .
  • After the first few days, try heat for 15 minutes at a time to ease pain. Never sleep on a heating pad.
  • Over-the-counter medicines can help control pain and swelling. Try aspirin or ibuprofen.


Exercise can help your back heal. It also helps your back get stronger and more flexible, preventing any reinjury. Ask your healthcare provider about specific exercises for your back.

Use good posture to avoid reinjury

  • When moving, bend at the hips and knees. Don’t bend at the waist or twist around.
  • When lifting, keep the object close to your body. Don’t try to lift more than you can handle.
  • When sitting, keep your lower back supported. Use a rolled-up towel as needed.

Key points about lumbar strain

  • Lumbar refers to your lower back.
  • Strain can cause damage to the tendons and muscles causing pain and soreness.
  • Nonsurgical methods can cure most low back pain.
  • Call your healthcare provider if symptoms don’t get better over the next several days or if symptoms get worse.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Joseph, Thomas N., MD
  • Moloney Johns, Amanda, PA-C, MPAS, BBA