back pain

Back Stretches – Why, How and When You Should Do Them

Back Stretches – The Why?

Back stretches should be part of everyone’s daily routine both for the prevention and treatment of back pain. Stretching tight, underused muscles can help you avoid back pain, as long as you know the correct way to stretch.

Muscle tension is the prime cause of back pain according to Dr John Sarno, a leading authority on back pain. Stress is locked into our bodies causing our muscles to tighten. This can cause pain and inflammation and even joint disruption. The neck, shoulders and lower back are particularly vulnerable areas. Correctly applied muscle stretching can alleviate back pain like a “natural anti-inflammatory”.

Back stretches release tension and improve muscle elasticity and strength. They also extend the range of movement of your muscles, tendons and ligaments, minimizing the risk of injury from sudden, unaccustomed movements.

Back pain can worsen with extended bed-rest as the muscles seize, causing painful spasms. Injury experts encourage gentle muscle stretching not only for mobility but to improve blood flow to the injured area for healing. Always seek your doctor’s approval before embarking on any exercise program if you have a back injury.

Back Stretches – The How?

A non-specific exercise program rarely achieves the level of support required for the back muscles. Similarly, there is no ‘one stretch’ that does the job.

A good back stretches program includes all three movements of the human spine: extension (forward and backward movement), rotation (twisting movement) and flexion (side bending). Symmetrical movements and those using opposing muscle groups are also essential for balanced support to the spine.

Strengthening the core muscles, integrating the trunk, pelvic girdle and limbs, is the basis for a good stretch program to support the spine and joints. Emphasis should also be placed on proper breathing. Concentrate on taking regular, slow, deep breaths before and during your exercise routine.

Use smooth, flowing movements to improve stability and strength. Hold the stretch until you feel tension release in the muscle. If it doesn’t, then ease off slightly. Hold the pose for about 5-15 seconds. Remember to breath!

Never ‘bounce’ the muscles when you stretch. Hold the stretch position without straining. You may feel some slight discomfort if your muscles are not used to stretching. Stop immediately if you feel any severe pain!

Back Stretches – The When?

It really isn’t critical when you stretch. You are more likely to incorporate stretching into your daily routine if you do it when it suits you.

If you are in pain, you may find short, frequent periods of gentle muscle stretches, interspersed with some rest, help stop muscles seizing.

For prevention of back pain, at least once a day is recommended. There may be times of the day that suit you best:

  • First thing in the morning: to ‘warm up’ your muscles before the day begins. Many people prefer doing back stretches after a shower when the muscles have ‘warmed up’ and are a bit more flexible.
  • Sitting at work: stretching can be done sitting or standing to relieve muscle tension. Try a simple flexion neck stretch by gently bending your head forward with your chin towards your chest, until you feel a light stretch in the back of your neck. The lateral flexion stretch exercises the side of the neck by gently bending your neck to one side, with your ear towards your shoulder. When you feel a slight stretch, hold for 5-15 seconds.
  • Before extra physical exertion: any athlete knows that a simple routine of stretches should be performed before and after any form of physical exertion. As one competitive runner says: “I am guilty of being terrible at stretching and even skipping it. I always figured I didn’t need it, or just didn’t want to do it. Because I didn’t stretch when I was a competitive runner, I now feel the pain in my lower back.” You don’t have to be an athlete to benefit – gardening or lifting heavy shopping can put added strain on back muscles.
  • Before bed: doing back stretches before getting into bed can release some of those residual tension ‘knots’ and relax the muscles for a good night’s sleep.

Putting yourself in control of the prevention and relief of your own back pain can reduce the need for expensive and time-consuming visits to physiotherapists, osteopaths or chiropractors, and even avoid the risk of surgery.

Sara Mallett is a trained health therapist who writes on a variety of health topics.

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