How to stretch your lower back to relieve back pain and when to do it
Everyone loves a good track. The exercise feels good because the stretch activates a network of relaxing and calming nerves and increases blood flow to the muscles. Stretching also releases endorphins, which elevate mood and reduce pain.
However, some areas of the body are easier to stretch than others. Hamstrings, quadriceps, triceps, and neck muscles, for example, are popular muscle groups to stretch and relatively easy to target. In contrast, it can be more difficult to effectively stretch the muscles of the lower back, especially for those struggling with lower back pain.
Experts are pondering the best ways to stretch your lower back—and when to avoid it.
What are the benefits of stretching the lower back?
In addition to the above benefits, stretching can improve flexibility and blood flow, allowing the body to move more freely. Some of these benefits can be particularly pronounced in the lower back, which is an area notorious for being stiff and where muscles tend to cramp. “Even though a person’s arms and legs are wonderfully supple, their back can be very stiff,” explains Dr. Loren Fishman, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Columbia University. The muscles of the lower back are made up of extensors, flexors, and obliques, and include the muscle mass known as the erector spinae—the muscle group that helps support the spine and glutes.
Targeted training of this muscle group can be particularly helpful. “Stretching the muscles of your lower back and surrounding regions can help improve mobility and help prevent injury,” says Stephen Dering, PT, an orthopedic resident at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Many of the injuries I encounter in the clinic can be prevented with proper warm-up, including stretching and strengthening techniques,” he adds.
How to stretch your lower back
While most people find a back stretch that works for them, Andrew Frost, PT, a practicing physical therapist at Intermountain Health in Salt Lake City, says different stretches benefit people differently. “Some elements of your back respond well to certain movements or stretches, while others may respond poorly,” he explains. “For this reason, there is no universal stretching program that will relieve everyone’s pain.”
However, there are common lower back stretches that work for many people who have tried the following:
- Kneel on all fours with hands and knees hip-width apart, then tighten your back muscles and push your spine toward the ceiling while holding the pose for 5 seconds. Then exhale as you lower your back and abdomen back down. Repeat the movement in both directions, breathing in and out in each direction.
- Lie on your back and alternately raise your knees toward your chest. Hold each knee with both hands for 30 seconds at a time, making sure to exhale as you relax your legs, hips, and spine. Repeat this three times with each leg. Frost says you can also vary this stretch by using both hands to guide each knee across your body and toward the floor. “This causes the pelvis and spine to rotate in opposite directions,” he says.
- Another common lying down stretch is the pelvic tilt and, as the name suggests, is performed. Simply lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat, and hands behind your neck, as if you’re about to do a sit-up. Then gently arch your lower back and slightly tilt your pelvis up towards the ceiling. Hold the pose for 5-10 seconds at a time, then repeat.
- Sit on a chair, grasp the right armrest of the chair with your left hand, and then slide the other armrest behind the back of the chair. “This position allows you to rotate while keeping your back straight,” explains Fishman. “Hold the rotated position for 30 seconds, then reverse in the other direction,” he advises.
- Another seated position stretch that targets the lower back can be performed by sitting on the edge of a chair with your knees apart and then bending forward to reach toward the floor while keeping your butt in place on the chair and holds place. Hold the pose for 30 seconds while relaxing your breathing, then repeat the process.
Should I stretch my lower back if it hurts?
Such stretches are best for stretching and targeting lower back pain, says Fishman. This is the type of back strain or muscle spasm that often occurs from prolonged sitting or excessive bending or bending over. Stretching when you’re in pain like this is okay, says Frost. “A slight increase in discomfort with stretching is okay as long as it remains mild and doesn’t last more than 20-30 minutes after the stretch,” he explains. “If you experience increased pain while stretching and it continues for hours, it’s probably best to stop stretching and see a professional,” he adds.
It’s also important to remember that certain medical conditions require avoiding lower back stretches entirely. These include sacroiliac joint disorders, piriformis syndrome, and scoliosis, says Fishman. Other ailments can also be helped with lower back stretches, but special techniques are usually required to ensure that the affected area is not damaged. “The best way to stretch your lower back always depends on what’s wrong with it,” explains Fishman. For example, someone with spinal stenosis needs to stretch their back muscles very differently than someone with a herniated disc.
“If a person is unsure of what stretches they should do for their lower back,” Dering advises, “I recommend consulting a healthcare provider, such as a physical therapist, who can guide them in the safest and most beneficial forms of exercise.”
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