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Stretch and Strengthen Your Way Out of Lower Back Pain

The evidence is in. Exercise is the best medicine for healing your aching back.


Everybody’s back hurts. Well, almost everybody. Nearly 80 percent of the population will suffer from lower back pain at some point.

And the pain can be much worse than a sore, achy back. It can radiate to other areas of your body, cause intense muscle spasms and leave you lying in bed, debilitated by pain.

Lower back pain is so common — and so problematic — that it’s the No. 1 reason for missed work days worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Why does my back hurt?Woman stretching

So many things can go wrong with your back. You can injure yourself from overexertion or from doing nothing at all. A simple sneeze can suddenly send you into fits of spasmodic pain.

Most of the time, the cause is mechanical. It’s something you can fix and recover from. Your back problem may even resolve on its own without as much as a visit to your doctor.

Common Causes of Lower Back Pain

Back pain that’s mechanical in nature comes down to one thing: activity. Either a certain activity led to an issue that caused the pain or a general lack of activity created an environment where your back can’t hold up to daily demands. Those activity-related issues result in:

  • Strains and sprains – Most acute lower back pain falls into this category. You overstretched a muscle and strained it, or tore a tendon, resulting in a sprain. Both can happen from twisting or lifting something incorrectly, picking up a heavy object or overextending your reach.
  • Herniated or ruptured discs – The impact from an accident, fall or sports injury can damage your spine. Back pain starts immediately after injury. It may also cause tingling or numbness in your legs.
  • Sciatica – Sharp lower back pain that radiates down through your butt and legs is due to compression on the sciatic nerve. Sciatica often occurs after a herniated or ruptured disc.
  • Pregnancy – Lower back pain is a common complaint in pregnancy. Your muscles and ligaments are stretching as your belly and the baby grows. The added weight and bump up front can overtax your back.

Rare Conditions That Lead to Lower Back Pain

There are many less common reasons for lower back pain. But these less common reasons are a lot more serious. Each of these would require medical attention to fix the underlying cause of your lower back pain. In rare cases, your pain can come from:

  • Degenerative disc
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Scoliosis
  • Infection
  • Tumor
  • Fibromyalgia

Does it matter where my lower back pain is located?

Not really. Right side, left side or both sides, you can have lower back pain anywhere. But it is more common to have lower back pain on just one side of your body.

The anatomy of your back is symmetrical. The spine separates the two sides. You would have to injure the same areas on both sides of your back to experience pain in both places. Even when it feels like your entire lower back hurts, the pain is probably coming from either the right or left side.

Because of all the organs in the abdomen, many people worry that their pain is a sign of something much more serious. Problems with those organs primarily cause abdominal pain. If back pain is present, it’s up high enough to rarely be confused for low back pain.

The one exception isn’t an organ, but an artery. Your aorta runs down the left side of your spine. In extremely rare cases, a bulge can develop and create an aortic aneurysm that leads to lower left back pain. 

Man with lower back pain

Back Pain, Be Gone

Physical therapists are movement experts who can help heal your aching back.

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How do I relieve my lower back pain?

First, you have to understand the cause. If you had an accident, fall or injury, schedule an appointment with your provider to get checked out. But if you pulled something or just generally have a sore lower back, the guidelines start with at-home treatment.

You might think that if you rest your pain will go away. It’s actually the opposite. Movement is the best medicine. Inactivity can make the muscles tighten up, causing more pain. So stay active and stick to your normal routine as much as the pain allows. And try out these exercises to target the affected areas and relieve your lower back pain.

Lower Back Stretches

Stretching is an important part of a normal workout routine. It helps you maintain normal range of motion and prevent muscles from shrinking up from lack of use.

When you suffer from lower back pain, proper stretching provides relief. It loosens and activates your tight muscles and helps resolve spasms. A slow, gradual stretching program built around these four exercises can help relieve your back pain:

1. Bridges

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet touching the floor. Raise your hips, keeping your back in a straight line with your knees and shoulders. Hold the bridge for six seconds. Repeat eight to 12 times.

2. Knee to Chest

Lying in the same position, put your feet flat on the floor. Bring your right knee to your chest while keeping your left foot in place. Hold it for 15 to 30 seconds before lowering it back down. Repeat with the left leg. Perform two to four repetitions with each leg.

3. Press-up Back Extensions

Roll over to your stomach and place your elbows right underneath your shoulders and your hands flat on the ground. Push down on your hands and lift your shoulders away from the floor. Hold this position for several seconds. Repeat eight to 12 times.

4. Bird Dogs

Get on your hands and knees with both shoulder- and hip-width apart. Keep your back straight and your ab muscles tight. Lift your right leg, extend it straight behind you and hold for five seconds before lowering it down. Repeat on the other side. Do eight to 12 reps with each leg.

Core Strengthening Exercises

Strong lower back muscles are part of a good core. The surrounding core muscles in your hips, abs and butt must be just as strong to prevent injury and back pain. These exercises will strengthen your whole core:

1. Partial Crunches

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands behind your head or cross your arms around your chest. Tighten your abs and raise your shoulders off the floor as you breathe out. Hold the crunch for one second before lowering back down. Do eight to 12 partial crunches.

2. Pelvic Tilts

From the same position, draw in your stomach as if you’re pulling your belly button towards your back. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing smoothly. Perform eight to 12 pelvic tilts.

3. Wall Sits

Stand up facing away from a wall with your back and heels a foot away. Lean your back flat against the wall and slide down until your knees are bent slightly. Gently press your low back into the wall and stay in the sitting position for 10 seconds before sliding back up the wall. Perform eight to 12 reps.

4. Hip Stretches

Kneel on your left knee and place your right foot forward, with your right knee bent. Pull your left foot upward toward your butt and hold it for 10 seconds. Repeat the exercise with the right leg. Do eight to 12 hip stretches on each side.

Physical Therapy for Lower Back Pain

Not all back pain is the same. Even if you practice proper stretching and strengthen your core, the pain get worse or just hang around for weeks. Chronic or severe lower back pain are both more complex issues.

A physical therapist can pinpoint the problem and design an individualized stretching and exercise program that targets specific muscles to relieve your pain. They also work with you to ensure you’re performing each lower back stretch and exercise correctly.

When stretching and exercise isn’t enough, a physical therapist can use manipulation, mobilization and other treatment methods to reduce your lower back pain symptoms and resolve the underlying cause.

But you don’t have to wait until your pain is unbearable or chronic. Visit a physical therapist if your lower back pain lasts more than a few days so you can get back on your feet and back to work faster.

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