The first question that often comes to mind when experiencing lower back strain is: how long does sore back last? What is the recovery time?
As a physiotherapist, I will answer these questions based on:
👩⚕️ My experience as a physiotherapist since 2009
📚 My in-depth research and reading of international medical literature on the subject.
By reading this article, you will realize and likely be reassured by the following facts:
- We have a relatively good understanding of the typical progression of lumbar strain.
- Severe and disabling pain lasting several days is not necessarily a sign of a serious condition.
- In the vast majority of cases, the pain will eventually diminish, even if it feels like there’s no end in sight.
If you have any further questions or comments on sore back, please leave them in the comments section, and I will respond to the best of my ability 🙂.
Last update: June 2023
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- What are the symptoms of a strained back?
- How do we determine the average recovery time of back sprain?
- How long does back strain pain last?
- What is the average back sprain recovery time?
- What is the maximum back sprain recovery time?
- Is the progression linear?
- Will a back strain heal on its own?
- What is the fastest way to fix a back strain?
- How long is the work absence duration with a back strain?
What are the types and symptoms of a strained back?
Back problems are classified in different ways based on:
- Their precise location
- Their cause:
- ++++ Non-speciﬁc low back pain: low back strain not attributable to a recognizable, known speciﬁc pathology. It is the most common cause of back sprain;
- lumbar radiculopathy, herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, Spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis or fracture, infection, tumour, inﬂammatory disorder, radicular syndrome.
- Their duration
Types of back pain by duration
For lower back strain, there are three main duration categories:
- Pain lasting less than 3 months: Acute low back pain (or lumbago, it’s the same thing)
- Pain lasting between 3 and 6 months: Subacute low back pain
- Pain lasting more than 6 months: Chronic low back pain
In reality, things can be a bit more complex. For example, we may refer to acute low back pain for pain that started 4-5 months ago but has significantly decreased.
Let’s simply remember that we refer to back sprain when someone has been experiencing back pain for a few days, weeks, or months. When it has been years, we tend to use the term chronic low back pain.
Symptoms of back strain
The symptoms of a strained back commonly include:
- Pain, which can range from mild to severe and may be localized or spread across a broader area of the back.
- Muscle stiffness: the muscles in the affected area may feel tight and restricted in movement.
- Limited range of motion: you can have difficulty in moving the back fully, making it challenging to perform certain activities or movements.
- Muscle spasms: muscle spasms or involuntary contractions may occur, causing additional pain and discomfort.
- Tenderness to touch: the strained area may be sensitive to touch, and applying pressure or palpating the affected region can elicit pain.
- Radiating pain: pain may radiate to other areas, such as the buttocks, hips, or legs.
The different names for back pain
In the context of back pain, there is a wide range of words and expressions used to describe the various types of discomfort. And healthcare professionals and patients may not always use the same terminology!
Here is a list of some expressions that refer to the type of pain discussed in this blog post:
- Sore back
- Low back pain
- Lumbar strain
- Spinal pain
- Pulled muscle in back
- Back discomfort
- Back stiffness
- Back tightness
- Back spasms
- Aching back
- Radiating back pain
- Sharp back pain
- Dull back pain
- Shooting pain in the back
- Burning sensation in the back
- Numbness or tingling in the back
- Back pain with movement
- Back pain at rest
- Back injury
- Threw back out, thrown-out back
- Whiplash lower back
How do we determine the average recovery time of back sprain?
There are several ways to get an idea of the average recovery time of a back strain
- Asking friends or family members who have experienced it before about how long it lasted for them.
- Seeking the opinion of a healthcare professional, such as a doctor or physical therapist, by asking them about the average duration based on their experience with patients.
- Reviewing the findings of clinical studies that follow hundreds or thousands of individuals with or without back problems over the course of several years, tracking the progression of their back pain when it occurs.
You will likely find that the third option provides the most reliable approximation. Here’s why:
- Friends and family members may not remember the exact progression of their symptoms, and their experience may not be representative of a specific type of back pain. The experiences of one or two individuals do not constitute a large enough sample to form a precise understanding of the duration of a health issue.
- Healthcare professionals have access to a broader network of individuals, which is better. However, not everyone who seeks medical help necessarily returns to provide updates when they are feeling better. This can introduce biases in estimating the progression of the condition.
- Studies help to mitigate these biases, although they are not perfect.
That’s why I will primarily rely on studies, as back pain is a very common problem, and we are fortunate to have a wealth of data on its progression.
How long does back strain pain last?
We first need to clarify the duration of what we are discussing. Are we talking about the duration of:
- Difficulty in moving
- Sensation of loss of flexibility
- All of the above
Before going into more detail, here are a few optimistic points: intense pain decreases very quickly, within a few hours or at most a few days. Sometimes it may take 3 to 7 days to see improvement, but the pain will diminish regardless of what you do.
For many people, the pain completely disappears within a few days to a few weeks.
What is the average back sprain recovery time?
You may be interested in knowing the specific figures regarding the progression of back sprain. I will provide you with those. We can have relatively high confidence in this data as it comes from several studies involving over 11,000 individuals in total.
However, keep in mind that these figures likely overestimate the intensity and duration of the pain due to the following reason: many individuals never seek healthcare professionals when they have back pain, especially if their pain disappears quickly. Therefore, they are not included in these studies that track the progression of acute low back pain. The individuals included in the studies are likely those with a worse prognosis than others.
Here are the numbers (Menezes Costa 2012):
- 36% of individuals have no pain at all within a maximum of 2 weeks.
- 34% have no pain at all within a maximum of 12 weeks.
- 14% have their pain decrease but not completely disappear within 12 weeks.
- 10% have fluctuating pain (decreasing and then increasing) within 12 weeks.
- 5% have high levels of pain that persist for 12 weeks.
In other words, you have a 1 in 3 chance of having no pain at all within a maximum of 2 weeks. In 95% of cases, your pain will decrease. If you are part of the remaining 5%, it does not necessarily mean that you have something serious, although the pain may be bothersome.
Among those who still have pain 3 months after the onset, 10% of them will have no pain at all 9 months later (Robert 2018).
What is the maximum back sprain recovery time?
There is no known maximum duration for a lumbago. Among the millions of people who experience lumbago each year, only a small portion will still have back pain after a year or even longer. In such cases, it is more appropriate to refer to it as chronic low back pain.
However, it’s better to see the glass as half full: it is much more likely that your lumbago will last for 2 weeks or, in any case, less than 3 months.
Is the progression linear?
When we experience pain in a certain area, we often expect the pain to:
- Suddenly disappear completely.
- Gradually disappear.
We don’t expect it to fluctuate. For example, if the pain increases again after it had decreased, it can be concerning. We may fear having a new problem.
However, this is something that frequently happens, and it’s “normal.” There are various different trajectories of pain progression, including for acute low back pain. When attempting to classify the pain progression in individuals with back pain, researchers have identified up to 12 possible trajectories of pain evolution!
If your back pain fluctuates (decreases and then increases again), it is something that commonly occurs. It does not necessarily mean that your condition is worsening.
Will a back strain heal on its own?
Yes, in the vast majority of cases, a back strain will heal on its own, regardless of what we do.
Our bodies have self-healing capabilities when structures are injured.
In the case of a back strain, structures may not necessarily be injured, but people are able to manage the multifactorial pain without specific treatment.
Of course, some people prefer to be supervised by professionals and implement specific treatments. But by doing so, they will also benefit from the body’s natural self-healing abilities.
The main role of professionals often remains to eliminate an underlying cause of back pain that would require specific treatment.
What is the fastest way to fix a back strain?
How to speed up the recovery from lumbago? Despite decades of studies on the subject, we have great difficulty identifying treatments or tips that have a high chance of accelerating recovery (at least more than any placebo would).
I would rather refer you to my blog post “Back Sprain: What to Do.” (coming soon in English). In any case, the two best things you can do are:
- Believe in your own self-healing abilities, regardless of what you do.
- Continue to engage in physical activities that you are capable of (such as walking, household chores, DIY projects, gardening, etc.), as long as the pain remains manageable while doing them.
How long is the work absence duration with a back strain?
There is no typical duration for a work leave regardless of the pathology. It’s not the health condition itself that determines whether or not you can take time off work, but rather its impact on your physical or mental abilities. And, of course, it also depends on the nature of your job.
Some individuals with lumbago:
- may not require any work leave.
- may take a day or two off work.
- may require several days or weeks of work leave.
- may end up on disability after several years (a minority).
In 50% of cases where work leave is taken for aback strain, it lasts for less than 2 weeks in France.
And the average duration is 2 months (in the case of a work-related accident). (Source: Ameli.fr)
Here’s what I wanted to tell you about this! I wish you a very good recovery! Do you have any comments or questions? Your comments are welcome 🙂 !
If you feel the need to learn more about the recovery period after a back strain, I wrote this guide in eBook format:
You may also like:
The prognosis of acute and persistent low-back pain: a meta-analysis Luciola da C. Menezes Costa, Christopher G. Maher, Mark J. Hancock, James H. McAuley, Robert D. Herbert, Leonardo O.P. Costa CMAJ Aug 2012, 184 (11) E613-E624; DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.111271
Downie AS, Hancock MJ, Rzewuska M, Williams CM, Lin CC, Maher CG. Trajectories of acute low back pain: a latent class growth analysis. Pain. 2016 Jan;157(1):225-234. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000351. PMID: 26397929.
Vasseljen O, Woodhouse A, Bjørngaard JH, Leivseth L. Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: the HUNT study. Pain. 2013 Aug;154(8):1237-44. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2013.03.032. Epub 2013 Apr 2. PMID: 23664654.
Gatchel RJ, Bevers K, Licciardone JC, Su J, Du Y, Brotto M. Transitioning from Acute to Chronic Pain: An Examination of Different Trajectories of Low-Back Pain. Healthcare. 2018; 6(2):48. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare6020048
By Nelly Darbois
I love to write articles that are based on my experience as a physiotherapist and extensive research in the international scientific literature.
I live in the French Alps 🌞❄️ where I work as a physiotherapist and scientific editor for my own website, where you are.