Your back is a delicate thing, isn’t it?
Too much standing? Backache. Too much tilt when gardening? Ouch. Long day sitting in meetings? ack! My back!
It may seem like the sweet spot between too much and too little activity is a hard line to find. But when you go through it, your back will let you know.
When your lower back is screaming with relief, it might be tempting to go to bed and wait. But that’s usually not the best solution, says physical therapist Patti Kopasakis, DPT.
When you have back pain, your first instinct may be to rest, but that only adds more stiffness to the equation, explains Dr. Kopasakis. The gentle motion can help work out the knots. But the key is to listen to your body and not deal with the pain.
Here, Dr. Kopasakis shares some of the best exercises and stretches for back pain relief.
The best stretches and exercises for back pain
The best way to resolve back pain may come down to a few things.
For starters, if your pain is the result of an injury, such as a fall or accident, talk to a healthcare professional before attempting to stretch it yourself. The same goes for back pain associated with coughing, vomiting, or other signs of illness.
But if your pain comes after a long day of sitting in an uncomfortable chair or doing too much chores around the house or yard, some light exercise and stretching might be just what you need.
Listen to the feedback you’re getting from your body, advises Dr. Kopasakis. If things are worse, this is an indicator to back off.
Also notice how different types of movements affect you differently. If your pain doesn’t improve after trying some forward stretching, try stretching backward instead. And vice versa: If arching your back and lifting your chest doesn’t feel right, try some forward bending motions instead.
Ultimately, the goal is to get good movement in all directions without pain, she says. But it may take some time and trial and error to find what works best for you.
Start with your breath
Your breath can create more space within your body, which can allow your exercises and stretches to be more productive. That’s because breathing is a signal to your nervous system (your fight-or-flight response) that you’re not in a dangerous situation, and it can slow its roll.
What tends to happen is that back pain stiffens when you feel pain, which makes it difficult to move, explains Dr. Kopasakis. Your brain interprets these pain signals and will limit your movement.
This can make you want to avoid moving. This leads to stiffness, which creates more pain. It’s a vicious circle.
But there’s a difference between pain and harm that can be hard to fix when your body is in a sympathetic state (fight or flight). Your body interprets pain (pain) as a threat of total harm (harm). But not all pain is a sign of real damage.
There’s a difference between feeling pain and having an actual injury, Dr. Kopasakis clarifies. People may fear that pain automatically equates to structural damage. But unless you’ve experienced some kind of challenging event, like an accident or illness, you often just get signals from your brain that something is wrong. Not that you were actually harmed.
Dr. Kopasakis suggests that before exercising or stretching your lower back, try some deep breathing techniques to help calm your nervous system.
Focus on a nice, long inhalation and exhalation. Relax your abs and relax your back.
Deep breathing is a nice way to get your nervous system into a calmer state so you can move more freely and have the best success, she says.
Once your body is ready, try these stretches and exercises. Again, listen to your body and push until you feel a stretch. Back off any movements that further aggravate your pain.
1. Lying trunk rotation
This lying twist can be done while lying on your back. Choose the most comfortable surface for you, whether it’s the floor or a bed.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent so your feet are flat on the surface. Your knees should be touching, or as close to touching as possible.
- Gently and slowly move your knees to one side. She tries to keep her shoulders and upper back locked. The goal is to feel a slight stretch on the side opposite to where your knees are going.
- When you feel that stretch, hold for 5-10 seconds.
- Gently bring your knees back to center. Then, lower them to the other side.
- Repeat three to five times on each side, or whatever feels good to you.
2. Cat cow supported
The cat-cow yoga pose helps bring flexibility to the spine. Typically, it’s done on your hands and knees, starting in a tabletop position. This modification can bring similar benefits but with less strain on your aching back.
- Rest both hands on a counter, desk, or table, keeping your arms straight at your elbows.
- Push into your hands as you gently round your back, bringing your hand toward your chest (cat).
- Lower your chest, pull your shoulders back towards each other and move your head to look up (cow).
- Slowly swipe through the cat and cow three to five times, moving very gently.
3. Side bend
This standing stretch targets the sides of your abs and back. If you find it difficult to keep your balance, try holding a counter or table with one hand while reaching across to the other side.
- Stand upright with your arms extended above your head.
- Plant your feet firmly on the ground, hip-width apart.
- Stretch your arms and upper body to one side. She tries to keep her hips straight, rather than lifting them or leaning to the side as you reach.
- Hold the position for three to five seconds.
- Return to center.
- Repeat as you stretch to the other side.
- Stretch each side three to five times.
The bridge pose is a good stretch to return your spine to a neutral position and work your glutes to relieve pain in your lower pack. If it’s safe and comfortable for you to get off (and back on) the floor, start there for this stretch. Or try it in bed if it’s easier.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent so your feet are flat on the surface. Keep your knees hip-width apart. Place your arms along the sides of your body.
- Using your buttock muscles, lift your hips. Make it easier. Don’t feel like you have to go too high too fast. Lift only until you feel the stretch.
- Hold for three to five seconds, then lower your back.
- Rest for three to five seconds and repeat for about five reps.
5. Standing baby position
Like the Cat-Cow, Child’s pose is typically done on the floor. But a modified version uses a countertop or other higher surface to be gentler on an aching back.
- Rest both hands on a counter, desk, or table, keeping your arms straight at your elbows.
- Step your feet back, keeping your feet hip-width apart.
- Hinge at the hips, moving your butt back. Keep your back flat. There should be a long, straight line from your hands to your tailbone. Let your neck relax.
- Hold this stretch for 5-10 seconds.
6. Traditional child’s pose
If your body allows it, traditional child’s pose can also help you relax your back.
- Start in a tabletop position on the floor or on a bed (on hands and knees).
- Touch your big toes to each other and spread your knees.
- Move your hips back so your butt rests on your heels. Your arms and hands should be on the surface below you, on either side of your head, reaching forward.
- Hold the position for 10-30 seconds.
Walking can help work out the knots when your lower back is inflamed, but you’ll want to take a few precautions, advises Dr. Kopasakis.
How far and how often you walk to relieve back pain depends on your activity level and how well your body tolerates it. Start by walking a short distance and working your way up. This could mean walking up your street two houses and back. If you feel good, go two houses in the opposite direction. The idea is not to stray too far from your base. Remember, the further you go in one direction, the further you have to walk to get back.
And while it’s easy to stop stretching or exercising when you notice tension, walking isn’t something you can necessarily stop doing the moment you feel uncomfortable.
While walking, if you notice discomfort, don’t just dig. Stop and take a deep breath. Think about trying to relax your muscles, advises Dr. Kopasakis. Sometimes, people don’t realize how tightly they hold their body and how tightly they are protecting until they take that deep breath and really make an effort to relax. And then, they might realize, OK, yeah, I was holding a lot of tension there. And now I have a new space to move into.
When to seek professional advice
Again, if your back pain stems from something like a fall or other traumatic event, talk to a healthcare professional rather than trying to DIY. Your provider will want to rule out more significant harm before advising you on the best path to pain relief.
If these or other exercises aren’t working for you, consulting a physical therapist may help. They can tailor a program to your specific goals and needs.
Also, contact a provider if you experience symptoms of nerve damage, such as tingling, weakness, or pain radiating down one or both legs.
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