The lower back is one of the most common pain sites. While protected by the spine, our lower back is often at the center of many injuries due to the lack of support from the ribs, hip girdle, or shoulder girdle. Most causes of lower back pain are mechanical or structural, caused by acute injuries such as slips, falls, and muscle sprains, or spinal conditions such as:
- Herniated discs
- Spondylolisthesis (slipped disc)
- Spinal stenosis (narrowing spinal column)
- Fractured vertebrae (often as a result of age-related osteoporosis)
Our lower back is also at risk of injury due to common chronic health issues and progressive illnesses, including cancer, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, and endometriosis. Finding pain relief for the lower back can be difficult. Sometimes, it hurts to sit, stand, or lay down. Walking can be difficult, especially going up a slope or down the stairs. Some people find relief in certain positions, but not others. An essential step towards pain relief after a lower back injury, or in the case of chronic lower back pain, is to talk to your doctor.
Consult Your Pain Management Doctor
Different pain conditions are caused by other mechanisms and structural problems, which call for different kinds of pain relief. Some stretches help most people find comfort but may still be painful for a small subset of patients. For example, sciatic pain caused by lumbar disc problems is often relieved by going into spinal flexion. The portion of the spine facing away from the back is stretched, reducing pressure on the spinal nerve roots induced by an inflamed or herniated spinal disc.
However, if your pain is caused by a strained muscle, bending over could irritate and provoke the tender tissue after it has already been taxed and torn. Your doctor’s physical examination and potential imaging test will help identify the cause of your pain and suggest exercises that might bring immediate relief in cases where the pain swells up, either due to a spike in inflammation or something as mundane as a change in weather.
Lower Back Pain Stretches May Bring Relief
Stretches, both dynamic and static, may help promote blood flow and recovery to an area and relieve pain caused by swelling or nerve compression. Do not underestimate the usefulness of stretches in combination with prescribed exercises and hot-and-cold therapy, especially in managing inflammation-based pain, where stretching and subsequently cooling a painful area might help reduce swelling and bring momentary pain relief.
As mentioned, it’s essential to get a physical examination before you try to diagnose and treat your pain yourself. There is no harm in trying different stretches and exercises yourself, but know your limits and avoid working through any pain. Stretches get easier with time, but there is no “goal” beyond pain relief. Consistency is more important than day-to-day intensity. For a few minutes at a time, Daily stretches can do wonders to help promote blood flow and provide a source of daily pain relief. For the best results, consider a few of the following stretches:
- Knee-to-chest stretch: This is a reasonably simple stretch. Begin laying on your back on a flat surface, ideally a mat, with your arms and legs outstretched. First, bring one leg up towards your body, and use your hands to pull your knee into your chest. This can help stretch the glutes and the muscles within the hip. Emphasize the stretch by keeping the other leg straightened and flat on the floor. Switch legs and repeat.
- Cat-cow pose: Begin on your hands and knees, with your back neutral. First, inhale as you pull your chest down towards the floor and bring your chin up towards the ceiling. Then, exhale as you tuck your chin in and try to push your chest and stomach as far away from the floor as possible, creating an arch with your legs, torso, and arms. Repeat several times.
- Child pose: Also a beneficial rest pose, the child’s pose involves resting and passively stretching the lower back. Stretch your arms out before you and slowly breathe out to relax your back. Start on all fours, and lower your butt until you reach your heels.
- Quadruped extension and rotation: Begin on all fours, and start by tucking one hand under until your shoulder reaches the floor. Then, pull your arm back and up towards the ceiling. The idea is to extend and rotate the upper back while keeping the hips and knees straight and anchored to the floor. Repeat on both sides.
- Piriformis stretch: Begin seated on a chair or at the edge of your bed. Bring your foot onto the opposite leg’s thigh while keeping your shin perpendicular to the floor. Bend over and hug your thigh for a deeper stretch. Repeat with the other leg.
Understanding the Root of Your Pain
The key to correctly applying any of these techniques and stretches is to understand where your pain is coming from. The first step to overcoming pain involves identifying it. Pain caused by swelling around the spine may feel superficially similar to the pain caused by a tightened muscle in the hips. Some discomfort is relieved through stretching, and other pain is aggravated. There are safe and painful stretches, but they aren’t universal in their usefulness or danger. Some are safe for you and painful for others. But most importantly, understand that the human body is resilient and adaptable.
Rather than categorizing stretches, exercises, sports, and movements as good or bad, we need to understand their usefulness and whether that context applies to us. For example, someone with a lot of experience in strength training and a long history of physical adaptations in their spine can safely round their back when picking something up. In contrast, others might be better off avoiding excessive spinal flexion or extension under a heavy load rather than simplifying the situation and generalizing that all spinal flexion under load is bad.
Suppose you are concerned about your physical fitness, personal health, and the effect of an injury or chronic pain condition on your mobility and quality of life. In that case, you should consult a pain management specialist and expert in physical therapy and recovery. Regaining strength and mobility is not just liberating but can help prevent future injuries and help your body recover at a better pace. Stretches, both dynamic and static, may be an essential part of that process for you.
Formulating a Long-Term Pain Management Plan
Pain management is a complex topic that incorporates medication, non-invasive physical intervention, physical therapy, psychological therapy, and a slew of alternative and holistic modalities to relieve pain, increase pain tolerance, and build resilience against recurring injuries or future problems. A long-term pain management plan will help you combat the root of your pain, prevent further pain, and help you cope with recurring or intractable pain through medication and other interventions, including daily stretches or physical exercise if you would like a personally formulated plan to tackle your chronic pain or health condition, discuss holistic options, including stretches and non-opioid treatments, with your medical professional.