Charlottesville Pain Management Center - Interventional Pain Specialist, Musculoskeletal and Sports Medicine

Acute Muscle Treatment

The treatment of muscle strains can vary from simple rest and over the counter medications to prescription medications. Application of either cold or warm packs to the back can help decrease the pain of muscle spasms that often occurs with acute muscle strain.  Sometimes, anti-inflammatory medications, biomechanical therapy or injections are necessary to treat the pain.


  •  Anti -inflammatory Medications: These medications are often very effective in treating the symptoms of acute back strain. The most common group of these medications is known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs). There are many of these medications available both over the counter as well as by prescription. Common examples are ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), aspirin, and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn).  These medications work by reducing the formation of inflammatory chemicals in our bodies called prostaglandins. In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration placed a “black box warning” on all NSAIDS. The purpose was to alert patients and doctors about the association between NSAIDS and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, gastrointestinal bleeding, and a serious skin reaction. It is very important to first check with your doctor prior to starting an NSAID to be sure it is safe for you.
  •    Steroid Anti-inflammatory Medications: At times, with severe flare ups of pain, your doctor may consider giving you a steroid type anti-inflammatory medicine. Prednisone and methyprednisolone (Medrol) are commonly used. These medications are strong anti-inflammatory drugs and are usually used over a short period of time such as 7-10 days in a decreasing dose (steroid taper). In some types of arthritis long term use of these medicines are necessary. As these medicines have significant side effects when taken for longer periods of time, these are generally not used as a constant medicine in most people with back pain. As with all medications it is important to check with your doctor before starting any medication to be sure this is safe for you.
  •     Acetaminophen (Tylenol): Acetaminophen is a medication that reduces pain in a different manner than the NSAIDs or steroids. It has minimal anti-inflammatory effects. Acetaminophen can be effective in controlling the pain. As many over the counter medications such as for headache, allergy, sinus and colds contain acetaminophen it is very important to read the labels of the medicines you are taking and know what you are taking. Acetaminophen overdose has occurred in people taking several different over the counter medications that contain this medicine. Also, some of the common prescribed narcotic type pain medications such as Vicodin, Lortab, Percocet and Endocet contain acetaminophen. As acetaminophen can affect the liver, it is important to check with your doctor particularly if you have any conditions affecting the liver, to see if it is safe for you to take this medication.
  •   Opioid (Narcotic) Medications: At times the symptoms of acute muscle stain can prove difficult to treat with simpler means. In some people the careful use of a limited dose of opioid pain medications can be effective in controlling their pain. Consideration of these medications is only after other treatments have been tried. While there are many of these medications, two of the more common medicines used in this case are hydrocodone/APAP (Vicodin, Lortab) and oxycodone/APAP (Percocet, Endocet).  Both of these medicines contain a narcotic medication and acetaminophen (APAP).  It is important to realize this as many over the counter medicines also contain acetaminophen.  These medicines are relatively short acting 3-4 hours but can be helpful where the symptoms often only occur with certain activities. Tramadol (Ultram) is mild narcotic type medication. Although it is not a legally controlled medication, it does have some effects of the opioid type medicines. These medicines can be habit forming, and can cause dependency and tolerance to the medicines. They do cause sedation, slowing of reflexes and must be used with great caution when considering driving or using potentially dangerous equipment. They also can increase the risk of falling. Other common side effects including nausea and constipation. Tramadol should be used with caution if you are taking an antidepressant medicine as the combination of tramadol with some of these medications can result in seizures. As many of these types of medications have been misused many physicians are reluctant to prescribe them. If you and your doctor decided to start one of these medicines, the doctor may ask you to signs an opioid contract stating the risks of the medications and that only your doctor will prescribe these medicines. You may also be asked to submit urine screen from time to time.


 Biomechanical Therapies

  •  Physical Therapy: Physical therapy can be a very useful technique both in the treatment and also in the prevention of pain and symptoms. Strengthening the “core” muscles including abdominal, pelvic back and hip muscles can help to reduce stress and forces on the spine. Improved posture and mechanics of daily activities such as walking, standing, lifting and others also can be helpful in reducing pain. Working on home exercise programs and general conditioning including weight reduction are an important component of any physical therapy program for more chronic medical conditions. Often, the results of physical therapy are very dependent upon the person’s motivation to “keep with the program”. At CPMC we are strong advocates of biomechanical therapies such as physical therapy. We very frequently will include physical therapy as part of your program for improvement. We work closely with several physical therapists in the Charlottesville and outlying areas. A great advantage that your physical therapist has is that they are with you for extended periods of times. We keep in contact with the physical therapists as they can inform us of your condition and findings with their treatments. This close relationship helps us better understand your condition as there are many components to back pain that can contribute to your pain. Our philosophy is the better we understand the underlying causes of your pain the better we will be able to come up with effective solutions.
  •    TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation): TENS is a common treatment used for many different pain problems. With TENS a small electrical current is used to help reduce muscle spasm and theoretically help to block some of the painful messages sent to the brain by peripheral nerves. The device is simple. It consists of the TENS unit which is a small plastic box that generates the electrical stimulus with batteries. The TENS unit is generally slightly larger than most cell phones. This is attached to wires that carry the electrical signal to surface electrodes that you attach to your skin like band aids.  Many theories exist to explain the effects of TENS units from blocking the electrical impulse of nerves to the release of endorphins which are the body’s own pain reducing chemicals. TENS can be effective for short term use however many people find that with time they become tolerant to the electrical stimulation. However in some people the TENS unit can help to relieve pain for long periods of time. There are several advantages of using the TENS unit including: patient controlled (use it when you want to use it), noninvasive (not a pill or an injection), and almost no side effects. Frequently people are referred to a physical therapist who demonstrates the proper use of the TENS unit. They can also arrange for rental or purchase of these units.