You’re not alone if you’re suffering from a bad back. According to the American Chiropractic Association, half of Americans report back pain symptoms each year (1).
And although you can help prevent back pain and sciatica by strengthening your core or avoiding sitting for too long, sometimes we need more of an immediate fix – and that’s where stretching comes in.
Why You Should Stretch
There are multiple benefits as to why someone should stretch. It not only helps increase blood flow to an area that is severely lacking oxygen, but it improves posture, which essentially forces you to sit up straight to prevent pain in the first place. When our muscles are tight, they become weak, and this can lead to postural compensations (which can of course lead to a bad back).
Tight muscles also mean compensation – so that means when one muscle is tight, the other ones connecting it won’t function properly either. By correcting these muscular imbalances, you’ll experience less aches and pains in your body, as well as prevent the risk of injury (such as back spasms).
Stretching also moves your joints through their full range of motion, increasing the flexibility of your tendons (the structures that connect your muscles to bones). Not to mention, stretching is a major stress-reducer. When you’re stressed, blood flow can become restricted, which leads to muscle tension and knots. Stretching can actually reverse this, as it increases blood flow to your muscles to ease tension and help you feel more relaxed.
Tight Hamstrings and Back Pain
Believe it or not, but back pain often stems from tight hamstrings. The tighter your hamstrings are, the more stress there is on the muscles surrounding the spine and the lower back. A study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine found that following an intensive stretching routine for 12 weeks, individuals found dramatic improvement from chronic lower-back pain, and reduced their need for pain medications (2).
Tight hamstrings are often caused by sitting too long, such as at a desk or in a car. When you sit, you’re deactivating your hamstrings, making them less responsive when you try to use them. Then, when you stand, your pelvis is more prone to tilting backwards – hence, the anterior pelvic tilt gives way.
Beginner Stretches For Low Back Pain and Sciatica
These stretches are exactly as described – beginner stretches. They’re quite easy for anyone to get into, and are gentle enough that they train your body to be able to get into deeper stretches in the future. Just remember to breathe, be gentle with yourself and never push anything too far if you can’t do it.
1. Downward Dog
1. Begin in a table top position on all fours. Spread the palms wide, and stack the shoulders over the wrists. Knees are hip-distance apart.
2. Walk the palms just out in front of the shoulders, and raise the body up and back.
3. Ground down into the palms and raise the knees off the mat while shifting the stomach toward the thighs. Lift the hips up high. Maintain a slight bend in the knees, and over time, as the body becomes more flexible, slowly straighten out the legs, reaching the heels toward the mat.
4. Hold in this position and breathe for 5-10 deep breaths. Return back to seated position.
2. Cat and Cow
1. Start on your hands and knees, aligning your wrists underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
2. Think of the spine as a straight line connecting the shoulders to the hips. Keep the neck long.
3. Inhale, and let your belly drop down, while you lift your gaze and tailbone to the sky – do not crank the neck, keep it in line with the spine – let your eyes do the work.
4. As you exhale, slowly tuck your chin towards the chest, lift your mid-back towards the sky and scoop your tailbone under (like a Halloween cat!).
5. Repeat 6-10 times, and rest.
3. Child’s Pose
1. Kneel on the floor and allow your big toes to touch.
2. Separate your knees as wide as your hips (or as far as is comfortable).
3. Fold your torso forward and allow your arms to either rest at your sides, or stretched out in front of you.
4. Stay here for as long as you like – 5 minutes is great!
4. Lying Leg Twist
1. While on your back, hug your knees to your chest.
2. Hold your legs behind the knees with your right forearm and bring your knees to the floor on your right side.
3. Now, look to the left and breathe. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
4. Repeat on the other side.
5. Figure Four Stretch
1. Lie on the floor with the affected leg crossed over the other leg at the knees, both legs bent.
2. Gently pull the lower knee up toward the shoulder on the same side of the body until you feel a stretch in the affected leg.
3. Hold for 30 seconds, and then slowly return to starting position. Repeat on the other side.
6. Seated Forward Bend
1. Begin seated on the floor with your legs extended out in front of you. Beginners should keep their knees bent throughout the pose, eventually straightening the legs as flexibility increases.
2. Inhale as you reach your arms out to the side, and then up overhead, lengthening your spine.
3. Exhale, and bend forward from the hip joints (do not bend at the waist). Imagine your torso coming to rest on your thighs.
4. Hold onto your shins, ankles, feet, or wherever your flexibility allows. Do not round the back.
5. With each inhalation, lengthen the front torso. With each exhalation, fold deeper.
6. Hold up to 1 minute, and then release the pose slowly.
7. Seated Twist
1. In a seated position, have both legs extended out in front of you.
2. Cross one leg over the other and place the foot of that leg on the ground.
3. With the hand of the side of the straight leg, pull the bent knee 45-degrees towards your back pocket. You will feel a major stretch in the leg and gluteal muscles, as well as the lower back.
4. Hold for 30 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
8. Sphinx Pose
1. Lying on your stomach, prop yourself up on your forearms.
2. Align your elbows directly under your shoulders and press firmly through your palms and the tops of your feet.
3. Press your pubic bone forward. You will feel sensations in your lower back, but breathe through it (it is simply the blood flowing into the lower back for healing).
4. Hold for 30-60 seconds, while breathing deeply.
9. Knee to Chest Stretch
1. Start by lying on the floor, and extend one leg straight.
2. Pull the opposite knee to your chest, and hold under the knee joint to protect the kneecap.
3. Gently pull that knee down toward your shoulders, keeping your shoulders on the floor.
4. Hold here for 30-60 seconds, and then switch legs.
10. Hip Flexor Stretch
1. Begin by sitting tall on your knees. Bring your right knee forward, bending at the hips. Your left knee and toes should be touching the floor.
2. Step forward with your front foot, and bring both hands tot he ground beside it. Relax your back leg, by bringing your left knee to the ground.
3. Hold for a few breaths as your bring your left hip toward the ground.
4. Bring your right hand to the right of your right foot and shift your weight to sit on your left thigh. Your right leg should straighten out as you do so. Hold for 5 deep breaths.
5. Return to the main position, and twist your chest towards your right knee, while holding here for a few breaths. You can repeat the twisting motion away from your knee as well if you like.
6. Return to starting position and repeat on the other side.