Back pain is the worst. Since your back is central to so much of how your body moves through the world, any irritation or injury can mean a real hit to your quality of life and exercises for back pain are a necessity for looking after your overall health. And if you haven’t had a bout of back pain yet, count yourself lucky. According to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide.
“The back is a complicated structure of bones, joints, ligaments and muscles. You can sprain ligaments, strain muscles, rupture disks, and irritate joints, all of which can lead to back pain,” according to ACA. “While sports injuries or accidents can cause back pain, sometimes the simplest of movements — for example, picking up a pencil from the floor— can have painful results. In addition, arthritis, poor posture, obesity, and psychological stress can cause or complicate back pain. Back pain can also directly result from disease of the internal organs, such as kidney stones, kidney infections, blood clots, or bone loss.”
I, myself, am no stranger to the pain. In fact, I’ve struggled with chronic lower back pain for more than 10 years. I’ve tried everything: OTC medication, massage, chiropractic care, stretching, foam rolling and yoga, just to name a few. Most people do best with a regular pain management regimen that includes a variety of treatments, but I swear by the following yoga-inspired stretches to help keep my back limber and pain-free.
Start with a neutral spine while on your hands and knees. Take a slow breath in through your nose as you arch your lower back, stretching your pelvis and head toward the sky (Cow Pose). Breathe out slowly as you reverse the movement, tucking your pelvis under as you look toward your navel (Cat Pose). Each breath should last a count of three. Continue alternating between Cat and Cow for five full repetitions.
Start with a neutral spine while on your hands and knees. Shift your hips back over your heels and stretch your arms forward as far as you comfortably can. Relax into this pose as much as you can, allowing your pelvis to feel weighted, sinking into your heels. Hold for 10 seconds, then shift forward onto your hands and knees (you can even shift into Cow Pose if you’d like — arching your back and tilting your pelvis up) before sinking back into Child’s Pose again.
Start with a neutral spine on your hands and knees. Then, begin by tilting your pelvis up toward the sky, and push through the balls of your feet as you lift your knees from the ground, pressing your hips up to the sky as you slowly straighten your arms and legs as much as you can. Allow your head to hang loose between your arms. If your hips, low back and hamstrings are tight, you may not be able to straighten your legs all the way. Do what you can and try “pedaling” your legs back and forth for a deeper stretch on each side by bending one knee, then the other, as you straighten the opposite leg as much as you can. While you do want to press your heels toward the ground, they do not have to touch down.
A strong core can help prevent back pain — and the plank is one of the safest exercises to perform while experiencing back pain because it doesn’t require movement to be effective. Simply form a straight line from your head to your heels. You can start with your knees and forearms on the ground, holding for just 10 to 30 seconds at a time. As you get stronger, try the exercise with your legs extended or in a high plank position. Work your way up to holding each plank for a full 60 seconds.
Cobra helps strengthen the lower back while maintaining flexibility in the spine. Lie on your stomach with your legs stretched behind you. Place your palms on the ground, in line with your shoulders, but in front of your chest. Breathe in through your nose as you press lightly through your palms and tighten your back to lift your chest and shoulders from the ground. Hold for three seconds, then lower slowly as you breathe out. While your palms act as support, you should actively engage your back to lift your chest upward. Repeat the exercise five times.
Figure 4 does wonders for stretching your hamstrings and hips, both of which can contribute to low back pain. Lie on your back, your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift your right foot from the floor and cross it over your left knee so your right hip rotates outward. Lift your left foot from the floor, bringing your left knee toward your torso. Reach your hands around your left thigh to help pull it toward you and deepen the stretch. If this feels comfortable, use your right elbow to press your right thigh away from your body, then begin to slowly extend your left knee, straightening your left leg as much as you can. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.
With a soft mat or thick towel beneath you, lie on your back, your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Bend your knees in toward your chest, lifting your feet from the ground. Grasp around the outside of your feet with your hands, pulling your feet down toward your body (your knees should remain wide as you do so). Hold this position, stretching your low back and hips, then start rocking slowly from side-to-side to lightly massage the muscles surrounding your spine. Maintain the position for 30 to 60 seconds.
Easy spinal twist
Maintaining the flexibility of your spine is incredibly important, even when you’re hurting, but if the idea of overzealous twisting makes you want to run for cover, I don’t blame you. The easy spinal twist is truly safe for everyone — just make sure you listen to your body and only twist as far as it will allow.
Lie on your back, your arms stretched out to the sides, your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor. Look over your left shoulder, then allow your knees to “fall” to the right as far as is comfortable (in a controlled fashion) while keeping your left shoulder anchored to the ground. You should feel a nice stretch through your left hip and low back. Hold for five seconds, then rotate back to center before repeating on the other side. Perform three to five sets.
A version of this story was published July 2015.
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