3 Free Low Back Stretches for Instant Relief At Home: Back Decompression

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Lower back pain is commonly caused by injury and compression to the lower lumbar spine, squashing the discs at L4, L5 and L5, S1. Daily life is full of times when we compress these discs further and create more aggravation. This is why we find that being able to decompress the spine at home is so very helpful. Self-decompression, done safely, is a great tool to help your lower back along the path to recovery, while you build your strength back up again.

The three decompression techniques that we talk about today can all be done from home with little to no cost, as all you’ll need is a bed, towel and a sofa or chair. We’ll also cover a bonus mobilisation to help you towards the end too.

Understanding spinal decompression stretches

Spinal decompression is the simple mechanism of creating a negative pressure within the spine, by gently stretching. In years gone by, traction was also referenced, which was a mechanism of constant stretch in a straight line for a sustained period of time. With the decompression methods we’ll talk about today, the latter two can actually be “pumped” which is done by varying the decompression effect to create a pumping effect in the lower back, something found to be more helpful than a constant pull associated with straight traction.

Considerations for spinal decompression back stretches at home

There are lots of stretches that claim to be decompression but they are not. Classic examples of this are knee hugs or child’s pose. Any stretch where you round the lower back is essentially violating the principle of a lordosis in the lower back and so an inferior, sometimes harmful stretch. Be warned, they will often still feel nice when you do them, which is why so many get caught out doing them for years with no results beyond short term relief. 

Conditions that spinal decompression stretches are good for

Fundamentally all causes of lower back pain will benefit from this method of spinal decompression, bar a few very specific circumstances which are so rare it’s not even worth mentioning. Conditions where there is some stenosis in the lower back as well as degeneration implies that there has been excessive compression and therefore, although you might struggle a little to begin with, these will be helping the lower back. Disc injuries such as bulges, herniations or slippages are of course great candidates for these decompression stretches. Finally if you’re anyone who spends a long time either sitting or standing each day, these will help unload your spine and can be great when you get in from work!

When can you do decompression stretches for your back?

The stretches we cover next can all be done multiple times a day, we suggest spending 3 to 5 minutes on the chosen variation of back stretch and will give some more details where relevant on each specific lower back stretch as we cover them.

It is better to do the decompression stretch for your back after you have done activity, this could be your back rehabilitation exercises, or a long walk, or even after you get in from work. Try to avoid doing them before you do strenuous exercises or activities as they are better used afterwards. 

If you’re having a flare up of lower back pain, all of these options can be combined with contrast bathing to help your lower back pain or sciatica. The dual combination of decompression and the beneficial effects of contrast therapy for healing, inflammation reduction and pain relief are a powerful option to help you. 

Stretch One: Towel decompression stretch

We covered this stretch in its own special episode because it really is the best stretch for back pain that everyone can do. It involves taking a bath towel, rolling it up and then lying over it – detailed instructions further down. This stretch does a number of things. Firstly it supports your lordosis, which is the natural arch that should be in a human spine. Too many of us with back pain have a reduction in the lordosis, or regularly flatten it out in our daily life. By supporting and “restoring” the lordotic position, the arch, you’re able to also relax the muscles and ligaments of the spine which are often pulled and on tension. Finally the towel itself creates a gentle stretching and elongation effect, creating a little local decompression in the lower lumbar discs in particular. 

How to do the towel decompression stretch at home

  1. Roll up the bath towel to about the size of your average foam roller.
  2. Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. 
  3. Bridge up carefully so your back comes off the ground (keep your core engaged).
  4. Slide the towel into position in the lower lumbar spine.
  5. Slowly lower yourself over the towel.
  6. Remain here for 30 seconds to 5 minutes.
  7. Carefully tip yourself to the side without twisting your spine.
  8. Remain lying on your side for a few moments and then steadily get up. 

To see a full demonstration, watch the video at the top of this page and use the timestamps to skip ahead to this section. It is worth noting that some of you with particularly stiff spines will struggle with this one to begin with and it may even be uncomfortable. After checking you’re doing it correctly and the towel is placed right, it is worth noting that you can adjust the size of the towel and duration to help you ease into this stretch. With time your body will finally unlock and relax into the towel. Do check out the bonus towel mobilisation as this will help your body finally get out of this stiff lower back position and relax more in the towel stretch.

Stretch Two: How to do the bed decompression stretch daily

This is a great option that works by gently using your arms to apply a small stretch to the lower lumbar spine. It is common to feel a strange achy sensation when doing it correctly at the bottom part of your spine. When doing this stretch you can also experiment with some deep breathing from your belly and see how that affects the pull. This is much better than an option like hanging from a bar as you will find, you’re much more relaxed when you’re doing the stretch. You also have much more control. Because you’re laid on your tummy you’ll also note the lordosis of the lower back is preserved. 

How to do the bed decompression stretch

  1. Lie on your bed, either across the bed if it is a double, or off the end of the bed if it is a single bed.
  2. Line up your armpits about 3 inches before the edge of your bed, so your armpits are on the bed.
  3. Move your arms so they hang off the end of your bed.
  4. Simply placing your arms in this position will apply a gentle stretch to your back as your armpit is pulled towards the edge of the bed.
  5. Gently pump by pressing your elbows into the side of the bed, and then relaxing again.
  6. Repeat these pumps for 3 to 5 minutes.

It is suggested that you hold each pump and relax for 10 to 15 seconds. Once completed carefully get off the bed and carry on with your day. This one is particularly good to do after a workout or strenuous exercise, and could be done before doing the towel stretch.

Stretch Three: Couch decompression stretch for back health

This is probably the most challenging stretch so do proceed carefully, although it might actually feel the best when you’re in pain it involves a little more control to do. This stretch works by hanging your pelvis off the side of the couch or chair. It also can be done off the side of certain beds, provided not too high off the ground. The chair or couch needs to be soft too, so if it is more firm, use a cushion for comfort. This stretch supports the lordosis, but also unloads the spine locally and can be a great option in the evening if you’re sat watching TV. Especially as a maintenance option, it’s easy to pop in and out of the position once you have familiar with the steps.

How you should do the couch decompression stretch safely.

  1. Move to the edge of the couch and slide the edge past your buttocks.
  2. The edge of the seat should slot into the lower back (the same level as the towel discussed earlier).
  3. Now gently allow your pelvis to drop towards the floor
  4. This will exert a gentle stretch as your feet take the weight of your pelvis as it drops
  5. You will feel the arch being supported by the corner of the chair. 
  6. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds at a time before taking the weight back. 
  7. Repeat for 3 to 5 reps.

This one is a little more difficult to explain in writing, so we definitely recommend skipping to the relevant section of the video above to see the precise steps and make sure you’re doing this right. For some with lower back issues this one will be too complex to begin with. Having said this, it will be a great option in the future!

Bonus towel mobilisation

For many with back pain, the issue is a chronic one, or at least, it has been present for many months, often longer. There are often factors that have been leading to the decline in lower back health that have been years in the making. There might also be considerable stiffness. This is where the towel mobilisation comes in. A method of gently encouraging the natural lordosis to restore. This should be followed up with one of the above stretches and over time, they will become easier!

Release your stiff back with a towel

  1. Lie on your back with a towel placed in the same position as the “towel stretch” but not rolled up.
  2. Grab each end of the towel with your hands.
  3. Lock your elbows to your sides so your forearms are at 90 degrees to the floor.
  4. Gently pull the towel towards the ceiling. 
  5. You should feel this pulling the arch into your low back. 
  6. Hold for a few seconds then relax
  7. Repeat for reps of 10 to 15.
  8. Roll to the side to get up slowly.

This works by starting from your current “comfortable” position, then adding in the curve and a little decompression. You’re in full control and can relax at any time. The pumping is of short duration so works quite nicely to encourage the stretch for the lower back with an easy way to take the stretch off. 

Support your long term back health

Ultimately these stretches are just tools to help support your lower back health for the long term. They do not replace the need for you to do proper rehabilitative work through an organised strength program, like that in our membership to the Back In Shape Program. Nevertheless, at a time when the average adult spends over 9 hours a day sitting, and so many suffer from poor lower back health, these stretches can be your antidote to the repetitive strain that we find our backs exposed to on a daily basis. Whether it is just one stretch or a combination of them, commit to making these a part of your daily back health practice, lean on them more in times of difficulty and high strain, and don’t forget about them when you’re feeling good! If you need help with your back pain or sciatica and you’d like to learn more about the membership then you can click the link below or here, and don’t forget, if you know someone who could benefit from this video guide, do consider sharing it with them!

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