Causes of back stiffness

Stiff back is usually caused by lumbar muscle strain or arthritis. The lumbar spine is the region made up of the five vertebrae of the lower back.

People with stiffness caused by lumbar arthritis often experience increased symptoms over the years. Strain injuries, on the other hand, are often associated with acute trauma (such as incorrectly lifting heavy objects). This can lead to tightness and stiffness in the back muscles.

This article will explain the differences between these two leading causes of low back stiffness and how to treat each condition.


Here are the differences between the causes of lumbar strain and lumbar osteoarthritis:

Lumbar Strain

Lumbar strain is the most common cause of back stiffness. This problem occurs due to injuries to the back muscles and the ligaments that support the spine. Lifting a heavy box or exercising the wrong way are two examples of possible lower back strains.

Lumbar strain can occur around the muscles that support the spine, including:

  • Extensors: Back and hip muscles
  • Flexors: Abdominal and hip muscles
  • Oblique or Rotator: Lateral

Diagnostic tests are usually not needed unless stiffness and pain persist for more than two weeks. If they do, your healthcare provider will order an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test to help find the root cause.

This video has been medically reviewed by Casey Gallagher, MD.

lumbar osteoarthritis

Lumbar osteoarthritis is a progressive disease (it gets worse over time). This is the result of damage to the vertebrae due to long-term wear and tear. As arthritis progresses, the cartilage and discs in the lumbar spine begin to thin and disappear. This causes bone to rub against bone, causing pain and stiffness. This can make movements like bending, stooping, and twisting very difficult.

X-rays can diagnose osteoarthritis by detecting bone damage, bone spurs (osteophytes), bone remodeling (ossification), and loss of joint cartilage that may occur over time. They may be less useful in early arthritis when the signs are less obvious.

An experienced clinician can often diagnose osteoarthritis even if X-rays show no visible bone damage.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

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In most cases, lumbar strain and lumbar arthritis can be treated with simple measures that you can do yourself. (In some cases, lumbar arthritis may require surgery, but this is uncommon.)

In general, most patients with back stiffness will benefit from the following treatments:

light activity

Light activity is recommended when overcoming back stiffness. Bed rest has been the first-line treatment in the past, but it’s rare for all but the most serious back injuries. However, most healthcare providers today recommend light activity rather than full immobility.

Light-hearted activities include walking slowly and doing light chores, such as packing groceries or folding clothes.

Doing light activity can be very helpful in relieving discomfort. However, it is important to avoid activities that involve bending or twisting.

ice and heat

Ice and heat can be very helpful in relieving pain from a stiff back. Gently warming the spine with a heating pad or pack before activity can also help loosen and relax sore muscles and relieve some of the tension in the lumbar spine.

rescue the suffering

Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) can help relieve back pain and stiffness. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe muscle relaxants and prescription NSAIDs, such as Celebrex (celecoxib), if over-the-counter medications don’t work.

Stretching exercises

Gentle back stretches and exercises can also help relieve low back stiffness. Many patients also feel better when they do yoga or Pilates.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Low Back Pain


Lower back stiffness is usually caused by an acute injury from lumbar arthritis or a strained back muscle. In most cases, simple treatments such as stretching and the use of ice and heat provide relief.

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Sometimes back pain does not go away or gets worse despite taking the recommended measures, if this is the case, contact your healthcare provider, who can perform diagnostic tests. In some cases, symptoms of low back pain and stiffness require more intensive treatment.