12 Easy Stretches and Exercises for Lower Back Pain| U.S. News

If there is one ailment that almost everyone can identify with, it’s lower back pain. Doctors field more complaints about aching backs than just about any other health problem – and it’s no wonder. Nearly 65 million Americans report suffering back pain at any given moment, says Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute. About 16 million adults, or 8% of the adult population, have persistent or chronic back pain that limits everyday activities.

As a result of all these backaches, back pain is a leading cause of work-loss days, resulting in more than 264 million lost workdays in one year, says the American Chiropractic Association. That’s equal to two workdays for every full-time worker in the country. A 2016 analysis by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that low back and neck pain accounted for the third highest amount of health care spending in the U.S. at $87.6 billion.

Yet, even though back pain often makes the thought of moving at all dreadful, exercise is perhaps the best thing one can do to alleviate lower back pain.

“Patients with low back pain are encouraged to stay active, and for most back pain, exercise does not cause any harm, even if it’s somewhat painful at first,” says Eric Robertson, doctor of physical therapy, clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and associate professor of clinical physical therapy at the University of Utah and University of Southern California.

In fact, the worst thing one can do for back pain is nothing at all.

“Bed rest has been shown to lead to poor outcomes with back pain, as has avoiding daily activities and work,” Robertson says. “Our bodies prefer moving, even when our backs hurt.”

Discover simple and effective lower back stretches to relieve pain, strengthen the muscles that support your lower back and improve flexibility.

Lower Back Pain Causes

Back pain can take many forms, from a dull, constant ache to a sudden sharp or shooting pain. It can start after an accident, from lifting a heavy object, twisting wrong, working out too hard or simply from growing older.

The National Institutes of Health describes two types of back pain.

  • Acute: short-term back pain that lasts a few days to a few weeks. Most low back pain is acute. It often gets better on its own within a few days or weeks.
  • Chronic: pain that continues for 12 weeks or longer, even after the cause of acute low back pain has been treated. About 20% of people see their acute low back pain progress to chronic low back pain, with symptoms one year later.

Most back pain occurs in the lower back, defined as the five vertebrae in the lumbar region of the spine. It is usually caused by a mechanical breakdown in the structures of the lower back, including the discs, muscles and nerves that make up the spine. According to the NIH, mechanical breakdowns can be related to:

  • Skeletal irregularities such as scoliosis (a curvature of the spine), lordosis (an abnormally exaggerated arch in the lower back), kyphosis (excessive outward arch of the spine) and other congenital anomalies of the spine.
  • Spina bifida.
  • Sprains, strains and spasms.
  • Injury from playing sports, car accidents, a fall or other trauma.
  • Degenerative problems such as disc and spinal degeneration, arthritis or other inflammatory diseases.
  • Sciatica.
  • Spinal stenosis.
  • Osteoporosis.

“Common contributing lifestyle factors of low back pain include a sedentary lifestyle and heavy lifting with poor lifting mechanics,” says ZaNiah Bradshaw, a physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California.

StephanAnn Santoro, a physical therapist and senior specialist of outpatient physical therapy at Staten Island University Hospital, a division of Northwell Health, in New York City, adds that poor posture and obesity are two of the biggest contributors to lower back pain she sees at the office these days.

Lower Back Pain Relief

If you suffer from lower back pain, rest assured you aren’t stuck with it. Lower back pain relief can be achieved through a combination of medical interventions, self-care strategies and lifestyle adjustments, depending on the underlying cause and severity of pain.

“Low back pain is complex and multifactorial in nature, and while some causes of low back pain relate to bone or joint problems, up to 90% of low back pain is referred to as nonspecific, meaning it’s not possible to pin down a specific cause,” Robertson says.

The good news, he says, is that because these cases of nonspecific back pain often do not need specific medical treatments, “clinicians like physical therapists rely on an individualized assessment of strength, flexibility and movement to determine a treatment plan.”

And that means exercise. Walking, as simple as it is, is a phenomenal exercise for low back pain, Robertson says. General stretches for lower back pain and mobility exercises can also be beneficial.

“Some patients with back pain prefer exercises that promote flexion to reduce their pain, patients with spinal stenosis for example. Other patients with low back pain find that exercises that promote extension are more beneficial,” he says.

8 Stretches for Lower Back Pain

Gentle stretching and strengthening exercises can help relieve muscle tension and improve flexibility in your lower back.

According to Bradshaw, exercises that help reduce lower back pain focus on:

  • Strengthening abdominals, gluteals and lumber paraspinals. Your lumbar paraspinal muscles provide postural stability, and they’re critical to your walking ability and supporting upper extremity movements.
  • Maintaining mobility of the lumbar spine and hips.
  • Maintaining muscle length of piriformis (a muscle that’s part of the lateral rotators of the hip), gluteals, hamstrings and hip flexors.

Below, Bradhsaw recommends eight specific back pain relief exercises that may help strengthen your muscles, improve your mobility and alleviate the pain. For each exercise, do as many as feel comfortable. However, talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise to be sure it is safe for you.

1. Squats walks

Targets: Strength (gluteal bias)

  1. Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Place a resistance band looped around your ankles.
  3. Lower your buttocks down and backward, as if you beginning to sit in a chair, until you have a slightly bend in your knees. Try not to lean forward more than a few inches.
  4. Slowly step sideways, maintaining tension in the band.
  5. Take steps in one direction, and then reverse. Make sure to keep your feet pointing forward, and do not let your knees collapse inward during the exercise.

Modification: Try this exercise without the resistance band.

2. Single-leg supine bridge

Targets: Strength (gluteal bias)

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor and hands palm-side down at your side.
  2. Lift one leg off the floor, bending your knee to a 90-degree angle.
  3. Press into the floor from your hips through your feet and lift your buttocks. Count out loud one-two to get to this bridge position.
  4. Hold this position for five seconds, then count one-two-three-four as you return to the starting position. It should take you longer to return to your starting position than to get to your bridge position. Control is important.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Modification: Do not raise your leg before lifting into a bridge position. Keep both feet resting on the ground, and lift your hips into a bridge position.

3. Side-lying clamshells

Targets: Strength (gluteal bias)

  1. Begin by lying on your side, with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Keep your hips and shoulders stacked.
  2. Place a resistance band securely around your upper legs.
  3. Raise your top knee away from the bottom one, then slowly return to the starting position. Making sure not to roll your hips forward or backward during the exercise.
  4. Complete a few repetitions, and repeat on the other side.

Modification: For beginners, skip the resistance band and try the clamshell exercise with just your body weight. You can also limit how high you raise your top knee, limiting the range of motion.

4. Supermans

Targets: Strength (paraspinals)

  1. Begin lying on your stomach with your arms straight overhead in front of you. You can try this exercise on a table, if you have a stable surface, or on the ground.
  2. Engage your back and core muscles. Slowly raise your arms, upper body and legs off the surface.
  3. Hold the position briefly, then relax.
  4. Repeat for a few repetitions. Make sure to keep your core engaged and avoid excess tension in your neck and shoulders during this exercise.

Modification: Leave your chest resting on the ground while raising your legs slightly, or lift your chest while resting your legs. You can also try raising one arm and leg at a time.

5. Plank

Targets: Strength (abdominals)

  1. Start in a push-up position, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your feet about hip-width apart.
  2. Keep your body straight from head to heels, and avoid looking up or down. Engage your core muscles to help stabilize your body.
  3. Hold this position for as long as you can, aiming for 20 to 30 seconds to start with.

Modification: Keep your knees bent on the ground. You can also try forearm planks – where you rest on your forearms, rather than propped up on your wrists – to reduce discomfort.

6. Downward dog

  1. Begin on your hands and knees, in a tabletop position. Your wrists should be directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
  2. Tuck your toes under, press into your hands and push your knees off the ground.
  3. Reach your tailbone toward the ceiling and shift your body up into an inverted “V” position, with your elbows and knees straight.
  4. Engage your core and hold this position, feeling a stretch through your back and hamstrings.
  5. Return to the starting position, and repeat.

Modification: Place a chair in front of you, facing the seat toward you. From a standing position, hold your arms out straight and bend over to place them on the chair. Keep your knees slightly bent, and gently push down until you feel a stretch in your back and hamstrings.

7. Cat/cow

  1. Beginning on your hands and knees, with your arms directly under your shoulders.
  2. Slowly arch your back, allowing your abdomen to drop toward the floor – making a “U” shape, also known as “Cow.”
  3. Lift your head and chest, taking your gaze slightly upward.
  4. Next, round your back up toward the ceiling – shifting into “cat.”
  5. Press your navel up toward your spine, and shift your gaze down.
  6. Inhale as you shift into cow pose, and exhale as you shift into cat pose. Repeat.

Modification: If you find traditional cat/cow pose challenging, try the pose while sitting upward on a chair. Keep your feet flat on the ground and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. While seated, arch your back forward slightly; and alternate with rounding out your back.

8. Child’s pose

  1. Begin on all fours.
  2. Sit your hips back, with your big toes touching behind you, and stretch your arms forward in front of you, palms facing down. Your chest and abdomen will gently rest on your thighs.
  3. Lower your chest toward the ground, relax your shoulders and allow your forehead to drop to the ground.
  4. Breathe deeply and hold this resting position. You should feel a gentle stretch in your back, hips and thighs.

Modification: If you find this pose challenging, widen your stance and spread your knees further apart. You can also use a prop like a pillow or folded blanket to rest your head on if you have trouble reaching your forehead to the floor.

5 Exercises for Lower Back Pain

The following five exercises will help you strengthen the muscles of the core and back while also improving mobility in the hips and chest. To introduce them into your routine, start slow.

1. Bird dog

A staple exercise for back health, the bird dog exercise trains stability throughout the entire core and back. Plus, because it involves plenty of coordination, it helps improve motor control, the ability of the nervous system to coordinate muscular movements. The end result: further back protection.

  1. Get on the floor on your hands and knees, with your hands placed directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips.
  2. Look down at the floor, just in front of your hands, to keep your neck in line with your back.
  3. Brace your core to maintain a flat tabletop position.
  4. This is the starting position; from here, extend one arm and the opposite leg up and away from your body. Stop extending your arm and leg when they are parallel to the floor, your form falters or you feel any discomfort.
  5. Pause, then slowly lower to return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat on the opposite side.

2. Dead bug

Similar to a reverse bird dog exercise, this move teaches the core muscles, including the muscles in the back, to stabilize the spine while the arms and legs are moving. When performing this exercise, it’s important to not let your lower back arch.

  1. Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs in the air, and your knees bent and directly above your hips.
  2. Contract your core to lightly press your lower back into the floor and get into the starting position.
  3. From there, lower one leg down until your heel almost touches the floor, while also lowering your opposite arm toward the floor behind the top of your head.
  4. Pause, then squeeze your core to raise your arm and opposite leg back to start.
  5. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg.

3. Seated 90/90 hip switches

When your hips are stiff, your lower back has to compensate and make up for that lack of mobility by being more mobile. As a result, the spine tends to curve and an excessive dip in the lower back begins to form. This dynamic exercise helps to relax and improve mobility in the hips.

  1. Sit on the floor with your knees bent and heels on the floor in front of you, almost twice shoulder-width apart.
  2. Clasp your hands in front of your chest, keeping a tall torso to get into the starting position.
  3. From there, rotate your body to the right, allowing the outside of your right thigh and the inside of your left thigh to fall toward the floor.
  4. Your chest should point directly over the right knee.
  5. Pause, then reverse the movement in the opposite direction so that you’re performing the rep over your left knee.

4. Lying chest opener

A tight chest pulls the shoulders forward to make the upper back feel tight and immobile. A person with a stiff upper back that is rounded forward will typically extend through their lower back when looking up or trying to raise their arms up overhead. By relaxing the chest muscles, the exercise helps improve back function and alleviate pain.

  1. Lie flat on a bench, with your knees bent and your feet on top of the bench.
  2. Make sure your back is flat against the bench. This is the starting position.
  3. From there, with your palms facing up, let your arms fall straight out to both sides. Do not force them toward the floor; just let them hang in a comfortable position.
  4. You should feel a gentle stretch through your chest.
  5. Hold for about 30 seconds or as long as you feel comfortable.

5. Band W

This exercise strengthens the muscles of the upper back to help reverse a hunched-over position, improve posture and reduce back pain.

  1. Stand tall, and grab a light resistance band with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hold the band just in front of your chest with your hands at shoulder height and your elbows pointed toward the floor.
  3. This is the starting position.
  4. From there, as you keep your torso tall and not let your ribs flare away from your body, slowly pull the band apart so that your arms form a “W” shape.
  5. Hold for about five seconds, then slowly return to the starting position and repeat.

Consult With a Health Care Professional

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to lower back stretches for pain relief. Back pain can have various causes, manifestation and individual drivers that make each person’s symptoms and condition unique.

Often, a personalized approached to physical therapy is necessary for back pain.

For specific dosage of these exercises, Bradshaw advises scheduling an appointment with a physical therapist near you.

Physical therapists conduct comprehensive assessments to understand each individual’s unique situation, including the cause of back pain, status of their physical condition and their individual goals for recovery. They’ll work with you to design a customized treatment plan that may include specific exercises – completed in and out of the office – manual therapy and lifestyle modifications to help manage your symptoms effectively.

However, not all cases of back pain can be resolved through physical therapy. Determining when to see a doctor versus a physical therapist for back pain depends on several factors, including severity of your symptoms, accompanying symptoms and other personal circumstances. If any of following symptoms describe or accompany the back pain you’re experiencing, seek further medical attention or consult with your doctor immediately:

  • Severe or persistent back pain.
  • Numbness, tingling or weakness in your legs, back or other parts of your body.
  • Accompanied by fever, unexplained weight loss or other systemic issues.
  • Resulting from trauma or injury.
  • New or worsening bowel or bladder control issues.
  • Back pain symptoms don’t improve, or they worsen.

Tips to Avoid Lower Back Pain

Keep moving throughout the day to actively stretch out your back muscles; try to avoid long periods of sitting and immobility.

“Remember, motion is lotion,” Bradshaw emphasizes. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Getting up and about doesn’t need to be complicated, either.

“Walking is a great start to assist with overall aerobic conditioning,” Bradshaw says.

Once you’ve built a strong foundation, it’s important to incorporate strength-training exercises. “Overall, to prevent low back pain in the future, keep abdominals and glutes strong and lumbar paraspinals enduring,” Bradshaw says.

For beginners, incorporating exercises that build strength one to three times per week will help to avoid back pain in the future. Consistency is key, yet you want to space out workouts by a day or two to allow for muscles to rest and properly recover.

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