Simple Stretches to Help Relieve Lower Back Pain.

Story at-a-glance -

  • Low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide
  • Eighty percent of the population is expected to experience a back problem at some point during their lives
  • Low back pain can result from bulging or herniated discs, fractures, muscle spasms, obesity, poor posture, pregnancy and more
  • While painkilling medications are often the first choice for relieving lower back pain, natural alternatives such as chiropractic, herbs, massage and stretches are healthier options
  • Yoga-based stretches such as baby cobra, bird dog, cat/cow and squat pose are a few of the gentle exercises you can do to both ease pain and strengthen your back muscles

By Dr. Mercola

According to the 2016 Global Burden of Disease Study,1 low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide. The reasons and causes of back pain are legion — they are as varied as the people who complain, "Oh, my aching back." Back pain is associated with conditions ranging from arthritis to pregnancy. Your back may hurt due to muscle spasms or an unfortunate twist. You could have a bulging or herniated disc or a fracture.

Other reasons for back pain stem from long hours spent sitting, poor posture and being overweight — factors known to increase the pressure on your joints and spine. No matter how you came to it, there are a variety of natural approaches for taking care of lower back pain, including chiropractic, herbs, massage and yoga-based stretches.

How Big of a Concern Is Back Pain?

If you've experienced low back pain, you are not alone. Unfortunately, the condition is quite common, ranking ahead of migraines, hearing loss and depression as the top cause of disability worldwide. To gauge the significance of low back pain as a major health concern, consider the following facts provided by the American Chiropractic Association:2

  • Annually, about 50 percent of working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms
  • The costs associated with low back pain in the U.S. exceed $100 billion per year and two-thirds of the costs are indirect, such as lost wages and reduced job productivity3
  • An estimated 80 percent of the population will experience a back problem at some point during their lives4
  • At least 31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time5
  • Back pain is one of the most common reasons for missing work6 and it is second only to upper respiratory infections as the top reason for a doctor's visit7

Common Causes of Low Back Pain

There are many causes of low back pain. Some come on suddenly — through an unexpected accident or fall. Others are gradual, such as pain from a long-ago sports injury or the effects of a degenerative spinal condition. Below are some of the common causes of low back pain.

Age

You may experience degenerative changes to your spine as you age. In some cases, these changes are affected by the way you use your back and the strength of the muscles supporting your spine. If you are between the ages of 30 and 60, you are more likely to have spinal disc-related problems and if you are over 60, it's more likely you'll suffer from osteoarthritic pain.8

Family and medical history

Clearly a family history of back pain may increase your personal risk. Your medical history also plays a role. If you have a history of disc degeneration, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis or spondylolysis, you will be at greater risk for back pain.

Pregnancy

Due to weight gain and the position of the baby, pregnant women are more predisposed to low back pain. Pregnancy often changes your center of gravity and can also increase the curve in your lower back.

Sedentary lifestyle

A lack of exercise does more than affect your risk of heart attack or stroke, it also increases stiffness and weakens the muscles needed to support your back. Regular stretching and strengthening exercises may reduce or even prevent back pain; these activities also nourish your ligaments, spinal discs and soft tissues.9

Sitting and standing posture

Your posture during sitting may change the normal curvature of your low back, increasing pressure on your spinal column and individual discs and causing pain. Poor posture during both sitting and standing puts stress on your back and also may predispose you to low back pain.

Smoking

Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to your body tissue, which adversely affects your spinal discs and increases your risk of back pain. Research demonstrates smokers have a stronger connection between their nucleus accumbens and medial prefrontal cortex, which scientists suggest makes smokers three times more likely to develop chronic back pain than nonsmokers.10,11

Weight

Excess weight creates an additional burden on your joints and low back, which may result in herniated discs, sciatica pain or spinal stenosis. If you are obese, your discs and other spinal structures may become damaged as they try to compensate for the pressure the extra weight is putting on your back.

Work- or sports-related effects

Repetitive lifting, bending and twisting may increase your risk of low back pain when you are working or playing sports. Long hours of sitting or standing can also stress your back, especially if your posture is poor.

Use Caution When Considering Medication to Treat Persistent Back Pain

Even though conventional doctors are sometimes quick to prescribe medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen and opioids for chronic back pain, you'd be wise to consider healthier alternatives. While these medications can provide some measure of relief, their effects are temporary and they are not without side effects.

NSAIDs, for example, which are one of the most commonly prescribed medications on the market, put you at an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular problems.12 NSAIDs can also increase your blood pressure and cause digestive tract bleeding or kidney problems. Keep in mind these life-threatening side effects of common painkillers apply to over-the-counter medications like Advil, aspirin, Motrin and generic ibuprofen medications as well.

Of greater concern are highly addictive opioid painkillers like OxyContin, which are often prescribed for back pain. Opioids continue to be some of the most commonly abused prescription drugs and they are a leading cause of fatal prescription drug overdoses in the U.S. Given its prevalence, the treatment of back pain has become one of the avenues through which American adults can become addicted to prescription painkillers.

Regardless of which type you choose, it's important you recognize that taking painkillers is risky. At a minimum, you'll want to use them sparingly and at the lowest possible dose. Beyond that, I suggest you seek out alternatives to alleviate pain, including stretching and other forms of exercise.

Six Stretches You Can Try at Home to Strengthen Your Lower Back

Regardless of your age, daily stretching is beneficial to your health. While you could depend on medication to ease your pain, stretching will be more beneficial in the long run. Many stretches exist to strengthen and protect your lower back, including the six highlighted below.13 If these stretches cause pain, stop doing them and consult your doctor, chiropractor or massage therapist before continuing.

You may experience mild discomfort when you begin doing these stretches, especially if you are new to exercise or it has been a long time since you last exercised. My advice is to take it slowly and gradually increase your tolerance to these stretches over time.

Baby cobra

Baby cobra: Lie on your stomach with your legs together, arms bent and palms on the ground at chest level, elbows bent. Begin with your forehead on the ground. Inhale and lift your chest, keeping the back of your neck long and your chin relaxed. Exhale and return your forehead to the mat. Repeat a few times, focusing on your breath.

Bird dog pose

Bird dog: This stretch engages your back muscles, buttocks and hamstrings, as well as your core and shoulders. Begin on all fours, then lift and extend one leg and the opposite arm at the same time. Hold for three to five breaths. Switch sides and raise and hold the opposite arm and leg for three to five breaths.

Cat or cow pose

Cat/cow: Begin on your hands and knees and place your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. On your inhalation, drop your belly and lift your gaze up to the ceiling. When you exhale, round your spine so your tailbone drops between your thighs and your head lifts between your arms. Repeat multiple times, slowly, to gently increase spinal mobility.

Psoas lunges

Psoas lunges: Your psoas muscle extends from your lowest vertebrae to the top of your thigh, putting it in a good position to stress your lower back when it becomes tight. A great way to stretch your psoas is through lunges.

Begin with your right leg in front of you and your left knee on the floor. Tuck your buttocks slightly and place your hands on your forward knee or your hips. Allow your hips to gently shift forward as you breathe for three to five breaths. Change legs and repeat on the other side.

Squat

Squat: Separate your legs a little more than hip-distance apart and bend your knees so your thighs are parallel to the ground. Keep your heels on the ground.

Press your palms together and hold them at chest height. Use your elbows to release your knees apart. If this is too hard on your hips you can sit on a yoga block, stool or a few books. Maintain the position for three to five breaths.

Twist

Twist: Twists help rotate and lengthen your spine and can be performed sitting in a chair or while lying or sitting on the ground. Begin on your back and bring your knees up to your chest. Gently allow your legs to fall to one side and turn your torso in the opposite direction, extending your arm. Breathe in this position for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.

You can do this stretch sitting by raising your arms and twisting gently from your torso. If seated in a chair, you can grip the arm of the chair with one hand and put the other hand on the opposite leg. Extend your spine on the inhale and twist a little further on the exhale. Repeat on the other side.

Your Body and Your Low Back Need Regular Exercise

Some of these stretches were recommended by Jennifer Brilliant, a certified yoga therapist and medical exercise specialist from Brooklyn, New York, who says, "Our bodies like to move. Movement is like nutrition for the body, giving us wholesome circulation and energy. Engaging in regular activity is important."14 While Brilliant is partial to yoga and Pilates, the truth is any exercise is better than no exercise at all, especially to prevent low back pain.

If you have the mobility, you may try biking, dancing, swimming or walking. Even household chores and gardening count as exercise. Movement of any kind is good for your heart, your bones and your muscles. Regardless of the type of exercise you are considering, don't overdo it on your first time out. Overexertion will most certainly cause increased pain and discomfort, which you want to avoid.

For that reason, Brilliant advises beginning any exercise or stretching program incrementally. Brilliant also acknowledges the need to customize workouts according to the needs of the individual. Choosing a well-qualified instructor is important. "Not every pose is for every particular body, and a good teacher will help you to modify what you do," she notes.15

Whatever your preference, I encourage you to choose some form of exercise you can commit to doing regularly and get going with it. You will rapidly notice positive changes when you engage in daily exercise, as your body, mind and emotions are all balanced through exercise. If you need some ideas to get started, check out my Peak Fitness Plan.

Pain-Relieving Remedies for Addressing Lower Back Pain

In the event you are not able to exercise, you may want to try acupuncture, chiropractic or massage, which have been shown to be useful in the treatment low back pain. Applying ice can be helpful immediately following an incident and can be useful to calm down a painful flareup.

If you have access to a whirlpool or hot tub, the swirling jets may provide temporary relief. (For your safety, never aim the jets directly at areas of pain.) Beyond that, below are a few of my top herbal recommendations for the natural treatment of chronic low back pain. For additional information, check out my article How to Treat Back Pain Without Dangerous Drugs.

Astaxanthin: This oil-soluble antioxidant has potent anti-inflammatory properties; you may need 8 milligrams or more per day for pain relief

Boswellia: This anti-inflammatory herb, also known as "Indian frankincense," was effective for many of my former rheumatoid arthritis patients

Curcumin: This therapeutic compound found in the spice turmeric has been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory activity; you can take two to three capsules every hour as needed

Medical marijuana or CBD oil: Both of these options are known for their pain-relieving qualities. Just make sure it's legal for use in your state

Kratom: This plant remedy and psychoactive substance has become a popular opioid substitute,16 but should only be used under the guidance of qualified medical personnel because it can be addictive

Low-dose naltrexone (LDN): When administered through a prescription, LDN triggers endorphin production, which can boost your immune function and ease pain