If you regularly struggle with back pain, you’re far from alone. In fact, the United States spends about 100 billion dollars per year on diagnosis, treatment, and lost productivity related to back pain, according to the journal Spine. It’s also the second most common reason people seek medical care.
Typical Causes Of Back Pain
According to Kelley, some of the most common culprits include:
- poor posterior chain strength (think glutes, hamstrings and back)
- weight gain
- sedentary lifestyle
- poor weightlifting form and mechanics (like not bracing the core when picking up weight)
- trauma (often the result of lifting very heavy weights often)
These different stressors can cause a couple of different forms of back pain. “90 to 95 percent of back pain is non-specific and mechanical in nature, meaning it affects the musculoskeletal system—and not just a single body part,” says physical therapist Morgan Fielder, D.P.T.
Lumbar pain, sciatica, lumbago, disc problems, and more all fall into this category.
“Often, an acute (or new) episode of pain is initially caused by lumbar muscle sprains,” says Fielder. “These are basically micro tears in the muscles surrounding the spine. The good news: In these cases, our body tissues typically heal in about four to six weeks.
In other cases, back pain can persist for long periods of time.
Stretching And Back Pain
For many people with back pain, stretching can offer relief and help prevent future issues.
“Stretching can be one of the best conservative approaches to back pain,” says Dr. Fielder. “It’s non-addictive, cheap, and empowering for people who want to avoid medicines, injections, or invasive surgeries.”
Related: 4 Exercises That Prevent Back Pain
While stretching can be an amazing tool for back pain, it’s not good for all types. “People with acute spondylolisthesis, acute fracture, and those with significant disc injuries should refrain from doing certain stretches, and consult a professional before attempting any,” says Dr. Kelley.
Stretching can also be helpful for nerve-related back pain. “The elongation [of muscle tissue helps take pressure off of the nerve endings and desensitizes them, decreasing pain,” says Kelley.
Plus, stretching also helps your mind tackle back pain. “Stretching sends adaptive signals to your brain to reduce feelings of discomfort,” says Fielder. “This can allow more freedom of movement, improve your ability to play with your kids or do your job, and remind your subconscious not to be afraid of movement.”
The 7 Best Stretches For Back Pain
If you want to incorporate stretching into your back pain care plan, Fielder and Kelley recommend the following stretches. Just check with your physical therapist or other care provider to make sure they’ll be safe and effective for your individual healing.
1. Piriformis (Or ‘Figure 4’) Stretch
“This is the go-to stretch for lower-back and pelvic-related pain because it stimulates most of the muscles across the hips and lower back,” says Fielder.
How to do it: Begin by lying on your back with your head on a pillow, knees bent, and feet planted on the floor. Cross your right ankle over the top of your left knee, making a figure 4 shape with your legs. Crunch your torso up to reach and wrap your hands behind your left thigh. Gently settle your torso back down and continue to pull your left leg towards you until you feel a gentle stretch in your right hip, buttocks, and lower-back. Hold for five to 10 breaths. Repeat three to five times on each side.
To make the stretch more accessible (for pregnant women or anyone with limited mobility), you can also perform this stretch in a chair.
For this modification, sit at the edge of a chair with your right ankle crossed over your left knee. Keeping your back straight, hinge forward at your hips until you feel the stretch in your right hip, buttocks, and lower-back.
“At the onset of back pain, gently and comfortably begin to move the injured body parts,” says Fielder. This stretch is a good place to start since your lying-down position allows you to bring movement to your lower spine joints and back muscles.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor. Gently interlace your fingers behind your left thigh and pull your knee towards your chest. Hold for five to 10 deep breaths, then switch legs. Then, if comfortable, gently hug both knees towards your chest. Hold for five to 10 deep breaths and repeat three to five times.
You can also perform single-leg pulls either sitting in a chair or lying on your side, if more accessible.
3. Cat-Cow Pose
These yoga poses, which you perform on your hands and knees, make it possible “to articulate each joint in your entire spinal column safely in all directions,” says Fielder. Cat-cow promotes blood flow, increased body awareness, and stretches almost every muscle in your back.
How to do it: Start on hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. As you inhale, slowly stick your tailbone up towards the ceiling, arch your lower back, and lift your chest and head to look up towards the ceiling. (This is cow pose.) On your exhale, reverse the movement. Tuck your tailbone, round your entire spine into a ‘C’ shape, and look down towards the floor. (This is cat pose.) Move back and forth between the two poses for 10 breaths.
Though cat-cow is a safe and effective stretch for mobilizing your spine and general comfortable to do on the floor, you can also do it in a seated position if you have knee issues.
4. Iron Cross (Supine Lumbar Rotation)
According to Kelley, this stretch rotates the spine in a safe position and supports your ability to twist comfortably.
How to do it: Lie on your back with both legs extended. Keeping your shoulders down, reach your left leg over your right leg and across your body until the foot comes to (or close to) the floor on your right side. Hold for up to 10 deep breaths and repeat on the other side.
To make the stretch more accessible (and more focused on the low-back than the hamstrings), bend the knee of your leg before crossing it across your body, so that your knee comes to (or close to) the ground in your final twist position.
5. Prone Press-Up
“In the current world of sitting and slouching, the spine spends too much time in flexion,” says Kelley. “This stretch works the spine into extension to help offset that.”
Kelley recommends this stretch for anyone who sits a lot—as well as people with disc issues. “This stretch creates pressure on the part of the disc that is bulging or herniated to help migrate it back into proper position,” he says.
Note: People with acute spondylolisthesis or fractures should skip this one.
How to do it: Lie face down with your hands planted outside your ribs, as if at the bottom of a push-up. Keeping your hips in contact with the floor, push up through your hands to lift your chest up off the floor until your arms extend fully and your chest opens up toward the wall in front of you. Keep your neck neutral. Take a full breath in and out, and then let yourself relax back down to the floor.
6. Side-To-Side Child’s Pose
Kelley likes this stretch for lower-back issues, since it helps open up the muscles and joints on each side of the back. It’s safe for everyone—but people with significant disc injuries should be careful not to stretch beyond comfort.
How to do it: Kneel on the floor with wide knees and sit back on your heels. Keeping your glutei pressed into your heels, walk your hands out as far forward as you can and lower your chest toward the floor. Then, walk your hands over to the right. (You should feel a stretch in your left lower back.) Stay there for one full breath, and then walk your hands over to the left. (You should feel a stretch on the right side.)
If you experience pain when kneeling, put a blanket or mat beneath your legs.
7. Standing Quadratus Lumborum (QL) Stretch
“This stretch focuses on the QL, a muscle that runs from the upper segments of your low back down to your hip bone,” says Kelley. Tight QL muscles can create a lot of compression in the lower back, and loosening them up can ease compressive forces that irritate nerves or contribute to disc issues.
Given that, Kelley likes this stretch for anyone with chronic back tightness and pain—as long as it doesn’t exacerbate symptoms.
How to do it: Stand in front of a wall and cross your outside foot behind and around your inside foot. Extend your inside arm up above your head and press your hand into the wall. Push your hips away from the wall to create a giant ‘C’shape with your body.