When back pain strikes, our instinct may be to move as little as possible and avoid all physical activity. But exercising and stretching not only can relieve back pain, but also prevent flare-ups, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
With 4 out of 5 adults experiencing low back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health, it's worth knowing what exercises and stretches can make you feel better, quicker. Most low back pain lasts a few days to a few weeks, but staying still isn't your best option, Dr. Chang says.
Keep in mind that severe back pain that comes on suddenly should be seen by a doctor, Dr. Chang notes. And if your back pain is joined by a "pins and needles" sensation down the back of your leg, you may have sciatica – a condition you should also speak to your doctor about before beginning a new exercise program.
"With low back pain due to typical muscle strain or spasm, however, gentle exercises and stretches will help the muscles supporting the lower spine," he says. "When muscles are stronger and more flexible, it's likely they're also less prone to injuries that can cause back pain flare-ups."
Easing back pain episodes
How does exercise help alleviate back pain? While running, lifting weights or shoveling snow wouldn't be among the types of physical activity recommended during episodes of back pain, other exercises can help stretch out tight back muscles or strengthen weakened muscles, Dr. Chang says.
Among many beneficial choices, Dr. Chang recommends these moves to relieve lower back pain:
For lower abdomen strengthening: Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, bring one knee toward your chest and then return it to the floor. Repeat 6 to 8 times for each leg.
For mobilizing your lower back: On all fours, make sure your hands are directly under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Keeping your head in line with your spine, extend one leg and the opposite arm outward to line up with your spine. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and repeat 8 to 12 sides, alternating sides.
For deep abdominal strengthening: Lie on your back with a small cushion under your head and bend knees so feet are hip-distance apart on the floor. Keeping your upper body relaxed and chin tucked in, take a deep breath in. While exhaling, "pull" your belly button toward your spine and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Relax your abdominal muscles as you breathe out and repeat 5 times
For stretching hamstring muscles: These muscles, which run along the back of the thigh, are often quite tight when you're experiencing back pain. Lie on your back with both feet on the floor and knees bent. Looping a towel under the ball of one foot, straighten your knee and slowly pull back on the towel. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat twice for each leg.
For stretching the lower back: Lying on your back, bend your knees and place feet flat on the floor. Keeping shoulders on the ground, roll your bent knees to one side, holding for 10 seconds. Return to your starting position and repeat on the other side. Do 2 to 3 series of these.
"Be sure to warm up muscles before stretching them," Dr. Chang advises. "Move slowly and gently, and don't bounce while stretching."
Continuing an exercise and stretching routine daily after back pain dies down can help prevent future flare-ups, Dr. Chang says. "Those who exercise regularly tend to have fewer repeat episodes of back pain compared to people who aren't proactive about exercising and stretching," he adds.
Try these Dr. Chang-recommended moves to keep back pain away:
Knees to chest: Lying with your back flat to the floor with knees bent, pull one knee to your chest and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Repeat 5 to 10 times for each knee.
Pelvic tilt: Lie on your back and place a small pillow or support cushion under your head. Bend your knees and keep feet hip-width apart on the floor. Keeping your upper body relaxed and chin tucked in, gently flatten your lower back into the floor while contracting stomach muscles. Then tilt your pelvis toward your heels, feeling a gentle arch in the lower back and your back muscles contracting. Return to start position and repeat 8 to 12 times.
Bridge: Lying on your back with knees bent and feet placed hip-distance apart on the floor, lift hips off the floor until shoulders, hips and knees are all in a straight line. Breathing in, lower hips to floor. Repeat 8 to 12 times.