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.
As pain can be caused by different conditions, including changes in the lumbar or lower back and musculoskeletal damage, it is important to understand the cause correctly. You might need different treatments based on your diagnosis. In some cases, a special training program can help ease the pain, but sometimes the only option is to have surgery or take pain-relieving medications.
"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."
Exercise in general offers many benefits, like increasing endorphin levels, which improves your mood, as well as strengthens your cardiovascular system. Apart from benefits to your general health, exercise improves blood circulation, which promotes healthy functioning of different body parts, including spinal discs. Exercise and physical activities also help cut the chance of neck pain and increase the mobility of joints. Good exercises for low back pain strengthen muscles, so they can support your spine better. However, it is important to remember that correct technique is key to enjoying all the benefits of exercise. So, it is best to consult a trainer to learn the correct moves.
Moreover, you shouldn’t just focus on strengthening muscles, but also incorporate stretches for the lower back into your fitness routine. Stretching helps relax muscles and prevent strains and sprains. You can try yoga or Pilates, as well as some other stretching routines. Try to perform such exercises with caution and control so that you don’t hurt yourself, especially if you’re just starting an exercise routine.
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.
Don’t skip a warm-up. Exercises are indeed beneficial, but if your muscles are stiff and not ready to train, the chance of injury increases. Without a warm-up, you can easily have a strain, so try to include at least a 5-minute warm-up into your training routine.
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."
Exercises to avoid
It is advised to avoid exercises like standing toe touches, as they often result in back injuries. It is especially important for senior people. Try to incorporate hamstring stretches with a towel or elastic band instead. These are examples of good stretches for lower back exercises that can help you gently stretch your muscles. Also, try to skip double leg raises as it increases pressure on the lower back. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do raises at all, but do it one leg at a time. In this case, you can enjoy the benefits of the exercise without side effects.
The same thing goes for sit-ups, they also increase pressure on the lower back, so you can switch them for partial crunches.
Another thing to avoid is training through pain. Surely, some exercises can ease the pain, but if they don’t help, or make the pain worse, you should immediately stop the exercise and switch to another one, or rest.
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.
There are several lifestyle changes to help prevent spinal diseases and back pain. They include maintaining healthy body weight and having a balanced healthy diet rich in vitamin D, Zinc, and Calcium. Also, make sure that you drink enough water.
Quitting smoking and drinking is also a good idea, as nicotine slows down regeneration processes and badly influences your overall health.
Another tip is to choose ergonomic furniture. Using proper tables and chairs is extremely important if you have a sedentary lifestyle and need to spend most of your time sitting. In this case, also try to stand up and perform some exercises once in a while to get some movement.
Another good idea is to learn proper techniques for bending and lifting heavy things. For example, lifting heavy things by bending is not a good idea, it can lead to injuries. Instead, you should lift things by squatting. In this case, the pressure is distributed properly.