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How to Alleviate Back Pain (With Stretches and Exercises)

According to the NIH, back pain is one of the leading causes of disability in Americans under 45 years of age. About 80% of adults experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. It is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care from primary care physicians.

Your back is the main support structure of your entire body. It allows you to move, sit, stand, bend, and bear weight. Your back is a finely balanced structure that can be easily injured if not cared for properly. 

Risk Factors for Back Pain

  • Inactivity, sedentary lifestyle, or staying in one position too long

  • Being overweight. Excess weight, especially around the waist, places an extra burden on the spine.

  • Overexertion in work or play

  • Poor sitting or standing posture

  • Improper lifting, bending or reaching

  • Poor sleeping posture and/or pillow positioning

  • Sleeping on a mattress that is sagging, too firm or too soft

  • Carrying a heavy handbag, briefcase or backpack, especially on one shoulder

  • Chronic stress and tension. This reduces blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen to muscles, which they need to remain strong.

  • Smoking. Smoking interferes with blood flow to the spine, which can cause disc degeneration. Heavy smoking also increases coughing, which can cause back pain.

Preventive Back Care

  • Exercise regularly, including cardio/aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching to help build endurance, strength, and range of motion, and to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. 

  • Strengthen your core. Your core is your center of gravity is where all movement in the body originates. The core muscles include the abs, back, and hip. Core stabilization exercises improve posture, balance, strength, power, and coordination, and strengthens the back. Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi help build a stronger core.

  • Move your whole body, especially your feet, ankles, knees, hips, back, shoulders, and arms. Move intuitively, however feels good, without forcing a painful stretch.

  • Use correct posture and proper body mechanics in daily activities.

  • Practice stress management regularly. 

  • Eat a nutritious diet. Include adequate calcium and vitamin D for strong bones.

  • Quit smoking. 

  • Get a 60-90 minute massage every 2 weeks. A professional massage therapist may be able to work out the knots. Opt for medium to firm pressure to get deeper into the muscles. Getting elbows into your back may not feel pleasant during, but the stress-relieving effects are highly apparent later.

  • Seek out a physical therapist or occupational therapist. These professionals can help you safely work past pain and teach you exercises to improve your mobility and flexibility.

  • Seek out a chiropractor or acupuncturist. Chiropractic adjustment and acupuncture have helped some people find relief from inflammation.

Immediate Relief

  • Child's pose stretches the upper back.

  • Lay with your neck hanging slightly past the edge of your bed.

  • Use a foam roller, which works through myofascial release. Foam rollers help warm up the muscles before a workout, improve performance, decrease muscle soreness, and shorten recovery. Foam rolling provides short-term pain relief and enhanced flexibility up to 10 minutes. It may also improve posture. When rolling your upper back, stop at the bottom of your rib cage. Avoid rolling your lower back since it is relatively nonmobile and the surrounding muscles could spasm. To release your lower back, try rolling the muscles that connect to it instead, including your glutes, hip flexors, and quads.

  • Hang upside down. Try different stretching poses, aerial yoga, or an inversion table to stretch the back muscles. Hanging upside down can lengthen the ligaments and ease painful symptoms, says Dr. Allan Stewart of Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC.

  • Try free hanging. Free hanging on monkey bars at the playground or pull-up bars at the gym elongates the vertebrae and improves grip strength. Start with 30 seconds and work your way up to 3 sets of 45 seconds.

  • Try a yoga wheel. The narrower structure helps open the chest and push the shoulderblades together more than a foam roller, which can allow for a deeper back stretch.

  • Perform spine-extending exercises. Lay on your back, preferably on a yoga mat, with your legs up a wall. While in this position as close to 90 degrees as possible, push against the very top of your legs, as if you are trying to push your legs away from you. You will feel a release of pressure in your lower back. You could also lock your elbows if this stretch begins to strain your arms. Hold this stretch for as long as comfortable, then relax. Repeat 3-4 times as necessary.

Sitting and Driving

  • Maintain your spine in a neutral, relaxed position. Avoid slouching or hunching your body forward. If your chair, seat, or car doesn't provide adequate lower back support, use a lumbar cushion or rolled towel.

  • Distribute your body weight evenly on both hips with buttocks touching the back of the chair.

  • Position your feet flat on the floor.

  • Keep your knees level with or slightly lower than your hips.

  • Keep your shoulders back and relaxed and position your head so that ears are aligned over shoulder; avoid thrusting your head forward at the neck.

  • Avoid sitting in bed doing work.

  • Long commutes can exacerbate back pain. To minimize strain, sit at a comfortable distance from the steering wheel. Sitting too far away increases pressure on your lower spine and can stress your neck, shoulders and wrists. Sitting too close can increase your risk of injury from