Low back pain is not only the most common and expensive cause of work-related disability in the United States, it is the third most expensive disorder in terms of health care dollars spent (2). It affects 80% of Americans at some point during their lives, with symptoms ranging from dull aches to debilitating sharp, shooting pains.
While low back pain can be caused by serious conditions, such as inflammatory arthritis, spondylolisthesis, endometriosis and fibromyalgia, most cases are mechanical, meaning the pain stems from an injury or disruption in the joints, discs, soft tissues or muscles surrounding the spine (3). Mechanical low back pain can be caused by:
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- Disc herniations
- Muscular imbalances
- Lack of core strength
- Piriformis syndrome
- Poor lifestyle habits
In fact, for many people, a lower back problem represents a lifestyle problem. Prolonged sitting, incorrect working posture, and performing repetitive tasks (the highlight of a sedentary lifestyle) can cause or exacerbate this pain. These habits can reduce spinal mobility and lead to atrophy in the muscles that are vital for spinal support, such as the core, glutes and hamstrings.
Another key player in the structural integrity of our spine is the fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue that wraps around our muscles, bones and organs and plays a vital role in maintaining postural alignment and ease of movement. Poor lifestyle habits or movement patterns can cause the fascia to become stiff and rigid, restricting movement and causing pain.
Weak muscles, stiff fascia and lack of spinal mobility are the holy trinity of general low back pain. Fortunately, there is also a pretty simple fix that doesn’t require invasive surgeries or popping pain killers: stretching and mobility.
13 Stretches to Ease Lower Back Pain
It’s crucial to know how to correctly stretch to relieve low back pain. Stretching for low back pain should be gentle and address fascial release, mobility AND stability in the upper and lower back. As with any new exercise program, start slowly and pay attention to how your body responds to each of the stretches below.
In addition to regular release work, doing core work to improve lumbo-pelvic stability and strengthen the glutes and legs for spinal support are key to permanently reducing your lower back pain.
1. Myofascial Release Using a Firm Ball
The following two exercises are like a deep tissue massage for your backside! This allows tight muscles and fascia to loosen up so that the stretches are even more effective. Use a firm ball, such as a lacrosse or tennis ball.
The first stretch targets the gluteus maximus muscle, which is the largest of the three glute muscles and one of the most common trigger points causing lower back pain.
The second stretch targets the piriformis muscle, which is located deep within the glutes. It connects to the lower back and, if it becomes overly tight, can lead to sciatic-like pain in the lower back.
Please note that the sensation for the following two exercises should be a dull, happy ache — that “hurts so good” sort of feeling. If you experience sharp, shooting pains, immediately release the stretch.
Gluteus Maximus Release
Begin by lying on your back with both knees bent. Place a firm ball underneath your right glute, directly below the bony point that is located at the bottom of the right side of the spine (aka the PSIS). Allow your body weight to gently melt into the ball. To increase the stretch, try extending your left leg and make small rocking motions across the ball. Hold for 30-120 seconds, depending on your tolerance, and then switch sides.
Begin by lying on your back with both knees bent. Open the right knee to the side and place a firm ball underneath the outer right hip, in the fleshy side-section of your backside. Allow your body weight to gently melt into the ball. To increase the stretch, try extending your right leg (the one on the ball), and make small rocking motions across the ball. Hold for 30-120 seconds, depending on your tolerance, and then switch sides.
2. Stretching the Piriformis and Hip Flexor
Now that you’ve relaxed the muscles and tissues around the backside, it’s time to add gentle stretches.
The first stretch targets the piriformis muscle, which you just massaged with the ball. The second stretches tight hip flexors, which are another contributor to lower back pain. One of the major hip flexor muscles, the psoas, also connects to the five lowest vertebrae of the spine. When the psoas shortens and loses mobility, it pulls on the vertebrae and creates a feeling of tightness in the lower back.
Seated Figure Four Stretch
Begin seated with bent knees and the feet flat on the floor. Pick up your right foot and cross the right ankle over the left thigh, allowing the knee to open to the right side. Keep an erect spine and gently lean forward, bringing your spine towards your calf. You can modify the stretch by sitting on a cushion or a chair. Hold for 30-45 seconds and then switch sides.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
Begin in a lunge with your right foot forward and your left knee on the floor. Squeeze your left glute and gently press the pelvis forward to increase the stretch. Hold for 30-45 seconds and then switch sides.
3. Mobilizing the Lower Back
The following three exercises gently mobilize the hips and lower back through flexion and extension exercises. You can kneel on a blanket to pad your knees.
Cat & Cow
Begin on hands and knees with a flat back. The shoulders are over the wrists and the hips are over the knees. Round the spine, pressing the back up to the ceiling, and hold for one breath. Arch the spine, reaching the chest and tailbone to the ceiling, and hold for one breath. This counts as one repetition. Continue to alternate between cat and cow for 10 repetitions.
Begin on hands and knees with a flat back. The shoulders are over the wrists, and the hips are over the knees. Sway both hips to the right side and turn your head to look at your right hip. Return to center. Sway both hips to the left side and turn your head to look at your left hip. Continue to alternate sides for 10 repetitions.
Extended Puppy Pose
Begin on hands and knees with a flat back. The shoulders are over the wrists, and the hips are over the knees. Keep the hips over the knees as you reach your arms forward and lower the chest towards the floor. Draw your navel to the spine and breathe deeply. Hold for 4-8 breaths before sitting back on the heels and resting in child’s pose.
4. Mobilizing the Upper Back
The following two exercises gently mobilize the upper back spine through rotation. Unlocking tight muscles in the upper back will improve overall spinal health (4).
Thread the Needle
Begin on hands and knees with a flat back, fingers pointing in towards each other. Lift the right arm straight out to the side, then bend the left elbow and thread the right arm underneath the left side. Your aim is to rotate the upper trunk while keeping the hips still. To increase the stretch, lower your right shoulder and ear to the floor. Hold for 4 breaths and then switch sides.
Begin by lying on your right side with the knees bent and stacked, and the arms extended from the chest. Keep the hips and knees stable as you rotate the upper back, reaching the left arm to the ceiling. Continue to rotate so that the chest opens and the left arm reaches towards the floor. Hold for 3 breaths before closing the arms to return to the starting position. Repeat for 4 total repetitions before switching sides.
5. Spinal Extensions to Strengthen the Lower Back
The following two exercises strengthen the lower back through extension exercises. They also gently stretch the hip flexors.
Begin by lying on your stomach with the legs squeezing together and the hands on either side of the chest. Keep the feet on the floor as you press into your hands and lift the chest and head. Hold at the top for one full breath, pulling your navel to your spine. Gently lower. Repeat 5-10 times.
Prone Leg Lifts
Begin by lying on your stomach with the legs squeezing together and the hands resting under the forehead. Engage your abdominals by drawing your navel to your spine, and squeeze your backside. Exhale to lift both legs 1-2 inches away from the floor, keeping the knees completely straight. Inhale to lower. Repeat 5-10 times.
6. Releasing Pressure
These final two stretches decompress the lumbar spine through supported elevation. Use a foam roller, firm cushions or a yoga block.
Begin by lying on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift your hips and place your prop underneath the hips (it should comfortably press against the flat part of your sacrum). Stay here and take a few deep breaths, completely relaxing your body into the support of the floor and the prop. To increase the stretch, extend one or both legs.
Roll up a towel or blanket lengthways and place it horizontally across the center of your mat. Lie, front-side down, over the towel, so that your front hip bones are pressing into it. Completely relax your trunk, arms and legs; the head can turn to either side. Stay here and breathe for 30-120 seconds.
(Your Next Exercise: 9 Exercises for Lower Back Pain Relief)