Back pain affects millions of people, causing daily misery for sufferers as well as thousands of hours of missed work and poor productivity. If your back aches or if your spine feels stiff and sore, you don’t have to reach for the painkillers and try to struggle through your day.
Six Simple Stretches to Ease Back Pain
Here are six simple stretches: one for your neck and upper back, one for between your shoulders, one for mid-back, two for your lower back – the most common area for chronic pain – and another for lower back and hips.
Doing these stretches first thing in the morning and at intervals through the day can make a significant difference. If you’re not suffering from back pain right now, adding these stretches to your daily routine can help to keep you pain-free.
The most important thing about pain management is to listen to your body. These stretches are designed to work on the muscle groups most commonly involved in back pain. Your muscles tense up as a natural response to pain but over time this actually causes further discomfort.
The idea of stretching is to encourage your muscles to lengthen and relax. You’ll normally feel a bit of resistance when you first stretch, which then eases as you hold the position, but if your pain gets worse, stop. A stretch should help your muscle to go back to its normal state but not beyond that. You could make things worse if you push yourself too hard.
Each of these stretches should be held for 20-30 seconds. It’s holding the position that allows your muscles to relax, not getting to it. And don’t rush. You should feel as though you’re naturally allowing your body to take up a new position, not forcing yourself into it.
Neck and Upper Back Pain
Poor posture or an awkward sitting position, for instance looking down at a laptop on a desk instead of straight ahead at a screen, causes stiffness and pain in the neck and upper back. Poor alignment in your lower back can cause problems here too, as your upper spine tries to compensate. Sit upright on a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
Allow your head to fall toward your right shoulder and place your right hand on the left side of your head, above your ear. You’re not pulling your head down, just allowing the extra weight of your hand to increase the stretch a little. Repeat on the other side, and then let your chin fall to your chest and put both hands behind your head – again, not pulling downward, just adding a little extra weight. Stretch five times in each direction. To finish, imagine a string attached to the crown of your head is pulling you upward.
Upper Back Pain
This stretch is great to relieve pain and stiffness between your shoulder blades. Stand with your back against a wall, with the back of your head, your shoulder blades and your tailbone all touching the wall.
Hold your arms out to the side with your elbows at right angles and your hands pointing upward in a classic “hands up” position. Keeping your head, shoulders and tailbone in contact with the wall, slowly raise your arms and stretch towards the ceiling. Get your hands as high as you can and hold it there, then slowly lower them. Repeat five times.
Mid Back Pain
Kneel on all fours, knees slightly apart and thighs and arms at right angles to the floor. Imagine a belt around your middle about halfway between your hips and your shoulders– more or less at the bottom of your rib cage. Now imagine that someone is gently lifting you by that belt.
Allow your back to arch upward as far as is comfortable, hold it there for 20-30 seconds and then return to the starting position. Now imagine that instead of being pulled upward, that belt is pulling you down towards the floor.
Allow your spine to curve as far as you comfortably can the other way, hold and then return to the start. Repeat five times in each direction. This stretch needs to be done slowly; your movements should be smooth and flowing.
Lower Back Pain
Lie on your back on the floor. Slowly bring your right knee upward, keeping the lower part of your leg parallel to the floor. Put both hands around your right knee and gently pull it towards your chest. When you can feel the stretch in your lower back, hold that position, then release your hands and allow your leg to straighten.
Repeat with your left leg. You may feel as if you want to raise both legs at the same time, but if your pain is related to underused core muscles, using your abdominals to lift both legs together can cause strain rather than ease it. Instead, kneel on the floor with your bottom resting on the backs of your ankles and the backs of your hands on the floor.
Allow the top half of your body to fall slowly forward until you feel the stretch in your lower back. Hold it there, then straighten up in a rolling motion starting from the bottom of your spine.
Lower back and hips
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Put your arms out to each side at right angles to your body, then allow both knees to fall over to the right. Your left hip will lift but both shoulders should stay flat on the floor.
Don’t force your knees to the floor, only as far as is comfortable. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, then bring your left hip back into contact with the floor so your knees return to their original position and repeat on the other side.
If you have pain in a particular area, then do a few extra repetitions of the appropriate stretch, but don’t neglect the others. Your spine is a complex system and what affects one part affects it all. Build up a daily routine of stretches for your neck, shoulders, middle and lower back and you can make a big difference to your back pain, now and for the rest of your life. If you continue to have back pain after these stretches, then it may be time to see a board-certified emergency room nearest you.