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Many of us who work at a desk are well aware of the aches and pains and poor posture that come from doing a ton of sitting everyday. And while we probably know that it would help our bodies if we got up to do some quick yoga stretches in between Zoom calls and deadlines, most of us don’t. It’s not surprising, then, that quick solutions, like this back stretcher , that have become popular on TikTok – racking up over 217 million views.
Essentially, you place the curved device and lie across it, either on the arch of your back or at your neck, and apparently it does a body good by stretching it and using plastic pins for an acupuncture effect. While the videos definitely make these devices look like a quick and effective remedy for our achy backs and necks, are they safe?
First of all, it’s important to understand why we suffer from immobility issues in the first place.
“We live our lives with our gravity pushing down on us in one direction, straight down,” says Karl Burris, a board-certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist and Founder/CEO of Live Life Physiotherapy, an outpatient mobile physical therapy clinic in the San Diego area. “As humans (most of us), we have a natural lordotic curve in our lumbar and cervical spine and a kyphotic curve in our thoracic spine. This means that gravity is pushing our low back into extension and our kyphotic spine into flexion (the cervical spine gets pushed into what is called a forward head posture which is flexion from our cervical spine and extension from our head on top of our neck).”
According to Burris, our thoracic and cervical spines are at a higher risk to succumb to the forces of gravity due to the increased relative mobility compared to our lumbar spine and distance away from our stable pelvis.
“Most people do not find themselves working through activities that challenge their end range thoracic extension —bending your mid-back backwards. Through the process of gravity winning, we progressively lose range of motion in the extended position. This results in gravity winning the game as we see many older adults in the typical hunched over posture.”
Does he think the back stretcher works?
“Sure! It is similar and probably more comfortable than a foam roller with the added benefit of adjusting the intensity by flattening or deepening the curve. If used long term, it has the potential to improve and maintain thoracic extension range of motion.”
He adds, however, the product does not help strengthen the extensor muscles that help fight the daily battle against gravity. “It is best to add in some thoracic strengthening exercises. In addition, you can work with a physical therapist to design an optimal program for addressing your deep neck flexor muscles to fight against that forward head posture.”
Sports acupuncturist Lijana Shestopal says the device could work for some postures, but it won’t work for all.
“If somebody has rounded shoulders, it is a great device to use on the upper back so the upper thoracic area gets a stretch. For the lower back it is only good for those people that have a posterior tilt (the posture that would look as if a person is tucking in their glutes),” she tells SheKnows. “However, for someone with anterior tilt (increased lordosis of the lumbar area), this device would create more issues such as low back pain and facet joint pain (the pain one may get about 1 inch away from the spine).”
According to Shestopal, anterior or posterior tilt can not only create back pain but also neck pain, “as when one curve of the body is affected, others will be affected as well (if lumbar lordotic curve is affected, cervical lordotic curve will be affected as well),” she says. “This goes beyond pain as well. It is not uncommon that it may also cause fertility issues. If muscles are not working well in the pelvic area, the blood circulation will not be great either, which can affect fertility.”
Which is why Shestopal recommends to anyone who wants to buy such a device to know their postural imbalances.
“Based on those imbalances, the person will be able to choose corrective exercises or different tools that help their specific case. To be able to determine what postural imbalances they may have, they should see an acupuncturist specializing in orthopedic conditions, chiropractors or PT’s.”
If you have an anterior tilt (when hamstrings are lengthened and quadriceps are tight) she suggests using foam roller to roll out quadricep muscles, stretching the PSOAS muscle as well as strengthening glutes and hamstrings, like practicing a bridge movement.
A posterior tilt means your hamstrings are tight and quadriceps are lengthened.
“In this case, it is crucial to foam roll hamstrings,” says Shestopal. “This is the posture that will be prone to sciatic pain as in this posture with posterior tilt, the vertebral bodies will be moving posteriorly and may pinch a nerve.” Stretching hamstrings is a must, so yoga poses such as downward dog is beneficial.
For those with either an anterior or posterior tilt and who are eager to try an at-home device Shestopal suggests buying Yoga Tune Up Balls .
“It is great to put them on each side of the spine (while the balls are in the mesh bag) and move it up each vertebral level every 20 seconds or so. Lay on your back, put the two balls on each side of the spine and lay on them for about 20 seconds. After 20 seconds, move it up to the next vertebral level (start at L5 moving up to L4 and so on).”