Muscular-type back pain usually feels dull, achy, sharp, or like a spasm. Usually, you will feel this muscular pain on one or both sides of your lower back, not directly on the spine itself. 

Skeletal or joint-based low back pain can have the same types of symptoms but is more centralized to the spine itself. 

What does muscular back pain feel like?

Muscular back pain as defined above usually feels dull, achy, sharp,  and can also, if severe enough, feel like a spasm. 

While this can be very disconcerting, pain like this usually improves over the course of a few weeks and is usually not serious. 

When I say not serious, this doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly painful. It usually is very painful. 

What I mean is that it won’t require surgery, injections, or other more invasive interventions. 

How does a muscular low back pain strain usually happen?

Usually a lower back strain occurs when you either overstretch or overexert your lumbar spine musculature. 

This is not always the case as many of my clients have simply bent over to pick a sock up and then experienced a horrible back spasm. 

But, if the pain did come on after lifting a heavy couch and you were lifting in an awkward position, it’s likely that the load exceeded what your body was ready for. 

99% of the time this will get better, so no need to panic over this. 

How do I know if back pain is muscle or more serious?

Most back pain will improve in 2-6 weeks regardless of what you do to try and improve it. 

By staying active you can sometimes decrease that time frame. 

If pain is shooting down one or both legs, you experience worsening numbness, tingling, or weakness in the legs, and/or you are experiencing bowel and bladder changes, you will want to go see your doctor. 

How do I know if back pain is muscle or a disc?

Bulging discs often have no symptoms. Disc hernations, protrusions, and sequestrations can have radicular symptoms or symptoms that go down one leg or both. This can also happen in the cervical spine. 

Herniations and the like do not always cause symptoms. 

To prove that point, I have a friend who is a pain management doctor. He had a herniated disc and it was symptomatic for about a year. 

It got better, but he was curious to see if the herniation had healed as his pain was feeling much better. 

His herniation is larger than it was before, but he has no pain, or very little. 

This is why it’s so important to select treatment options based on your symptoms.

Muscle spasms and pain related to muscle strains in the lower back as discussed elsewhere in this article are generally achy, but they can be sharp depending on severity. Additionally, they are usually located on one side or the other, not directly in the center of the spine. 

What is considered chronic back pain?

Chronic back pain is defined differently depending on what source you look to. 

Typically, chronic back pain is defined as pain that has lasted 3 months or more and where you have pain 50% of the time or greater. 

If you look through different websites they will generally give you different definitions too. 

Another definition is pain that has been present for 3 months or longer and has caused a significant decrease in quality of life and function. 

Why is back pain at night a red flag?

Back pain at night is considered a red flag sign for cancer. This is defined as back pain at night that does not improve with positional changes. 

Most people with non-cancer-type low back pain are usually able to change positions and find movements that do help them (although it might take a while). 

How long does it take to heal a pulled muscle in your lower back?

Most back pain, especially muscular strains, resolve in approximately two to six weeks on their own, even without intervention.

It’s of course best to stay active and go see a professional if you aren’t sure what to do, but most people will get better. 

To date, we don’t have any research that helps us predict who will develop chronic low back pain, unfortunately. 

How do you know if low back pain is a pulled muscle or a kidney problem?

If you have a known diagnosis of chronic kidney disease then this should be one of the first things you address with your doctor. 

If you do not have CKD or it’s not been diagnosed, you’ll want to take a different approach to differentiate this. 

Like explained above, a pulled muscle usually has a defined moment when it occurred that you can point to. This is almost 100% the case with a pulled muscle. 

Additionally, a  pulled muscle, while it can be achy, is often sharp if moving in different directions and you can often find a position that is more comfortable. 

When people have a kidney issue, generally no position feels better than any other. 

How do I explain my back pain to my doctor?

First, you want to inform them of how it happened and how long it’s been going on. 

Then, you’ll want to share what it feels like and where you feel it. 

After this, you’ll want to share anything you’ve tried that has made the pain better or worse. 

Once you’ve explained this to them, it’s important to also explain to them what activities are impacted by the symptoms you are having, and what activities and standard of life you’d like to get back to. 

This will assist your doctor in knowing who to refer you to. 

What does a neurologist do for back pain?

Typically a neurologist is not the correct doctor to see for back pain. 

A neurologist is more skilled in working with neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ALS, tremors, and other neurologically driven disorders. 

Some neurologists can perform nerve conduction velocity tests but this would only be used if you had suspected nerve damage or other suspected causes of neuropathy

When is back pain an emergency?

Back pain is an emergency if you have experienced a traumatic event and potentially sustained a fracture. 

It’s also an emergency if you notice rapid or progressively worsening weakness, numbness and tingling in one or both legs and bowel and bladder changes. This could be cauda equina syndrome and may require surgery. 

It’s also an emergency if you think you have cancer or an infection. These ideally should be caught as soon as possible with good medical screening. 

The best way to screen these is with a provider who is skilled in differential diagnosis and can rule out any musculoskeletal reasons.