Back Pain Stretches: The Best Way To Release Your Back

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The internet is awash with ways in which you can stretch your back, and it is no wonder with lower back pain being such a common problem. Ask yourself why you want to stretch your back. Some answers may include: to ease the back stiffness, to release back pain or sciatica symptoms, to take pressure off a bulging disc, to release tightness in the low back and hips. These are all valid answers and common symptoms that fall into the “back pain bucket” but is there a better way to stretch the lower back that doesn’t compromise one area over another, and that focuses on effective stretching of the low back in a way that understands what is actually going on at the root cause of the back pain? We know that there is and that is what we’ll be seeking to unravel today. 

Understanding the need for a decompression stretch for your back

As we’ve mentioned many times before, daily life places consistent demand on our lower backs, particularly the lower part of our lower back, the last two sections of the lumbar spine, L4, L5 and L5, S1. The tremendous amount of sitting we do every day, averaging 9.5 hours per day for most adults, coupled with the absence of significant exercise that builds strength in the bones, joints, ligaments and muscles means it is only a matter of time before things start to reach a point at which pain begins to become a weekly or daily occurrence. 

One of the ways in which we can offset some of this strain is to work on regular stretching of the back at home. This helps us decompress the lower back region. By decompress, we simply mean to take pressure off the lower back. We’ll get into the specifics of how you go about doing this later on, but for the time being know that there are two main areas you want to take pressure off. 

Taking pressure off the muscles

For most with back pain or stiffness it is the muscles that they are constantly talking about feeling stiff. However, people frequently make mistakes doing the wrong kind of stretches because they just do not appreciate how the tension develops. But don’t worry we’ll cover the common mistakes later on so you don’t need to worry about continuing such mistakes. In short however, muscles are on “tension” when they’re being forced to pull. 

This can be two main ways, either they are stuck contracted, like a cramp in your calf where your toe is pointing away from you and the muscle is clearly shortened. This is often only the case in acute cases of lower back pain where the person is tilted to one side in the classic antalgic posture. 

The second is much more common in the majority of cases with lower back pain or sciatica, especially in chronic cases. This is that the muscles are being stretched all day and they just aren’t happy about it! This is the exact opposite and occurs when we sit for long periods with a flat lower spine, and is made worse when our lower back is flat and upper back curved forward, hunched over a desk. It creates a maximal stretch through all the muscles and ligaments of the back, not just the lower back. This creates that low grade tension or aching that is so common in cases of back pain.

In order to take pressure off these muscles, we must actually stop the stretch, return the muscles to a resting position of neutrality, but as we’ll see later on, the opposite is all too commonly recommended. 

Taking pressure off your spine and discs

Although you cannot really feel “pressure” on your spine apart from in cases of severe weakness or extreme load, you feel the consequences of this pressure, arguably in the presence of the “tension” and symptoms previously discussed. The second goal of this decompression of the lower back is to take the pressure off the spine and discs themselves. This is particularly important if you’ve any sort of disc herniations, degenerative disc disease or spinal stenosis as it creates the opportunity for some space to be restored to the region of the lower back that is injured or degenerated.

Common decompression stretch mistakes for back pain

By far the biggest mistake that people make when they think of stretching the lower back is to do movements that round the back more. Unfortunately more or less everyone we have seen in the clinic and as members in the program has done the classic knee hugs, or child’s pose stretches to try and decompress the low back. You would certainly be forgiven for doing these and we’ll explain why.

Fundamentally most stretches are going to feel nice, especially if we have a lower back injury. Remember those muscles are likely being “triggered” because there is a constant stretch through them all day from bad care of self. This constant stretch through the muscles means in 100% of cases, there is constant compression through the discs too, and therefore a little aggravation, a little damage, albeit minor perhaps in the first instances. This causes a reaction in the muscles of the back to become more tense as they try to protect the low back – which unfortunately makes the issue worse.

Muscle spasm is a real problem for back injuries and back pain or sciatica in general as it always adds more compression to the spine, this is why muscle relaxants are commonly recommended as is heat, but we’ll discuss those another time. 

The result of this attack on the lower back is that inflammation builds up in the lower spine creating pressure on the nerves! When you then do stretches like the child’s pose stretch for back pain or knee hugs, you make the holes where the nerves leave the spine larger and therefore temporarily ease the pressure, as well as stretch the back muscles more! This does not ease the pressure on your spine as you squash down on the discs more, it also stretches the muscles and ligaments more!

Mistakes make disc herniations worse

Nowhere are stretches like this more a problem than in those with disc injuries or degeneration. To have a disc injury means that you have damage to both the disc and the ligaments that protect the disc and spine from excessive flexion – forward bending. They are trying to knit back together and restore stability. With stretches like those above, flattening the low back, you are making both of these issues worse by ADDING COMPRESSION and ADDING MORE STRETCH to the ligaments and muscles trying to just get a break!

But it feels nice in the moment as you make more space on the back of the vertebra, and so the endless cycle of short term relief begins. If there is one thing you take away from this article and podcast, this should be it: stop adding flexion for therapeutic effect!

Stretch your back safely with decompression at home

Once you get rid of bad practices you can start adding in good practices, and this is where these at home decompression stretches come in. These stretches give you a way to unload the spine and take pressure off the muscles and are done with your spine in mind, or rather, the strain on your back, the structure of your back, and the health of your back, in mind.

Check One: Observe the lordosis, or loss of it

The first principle to check is that we have a stretch that is supporting the neutral position of the low back, the presence of that arch in the back we should all have, a lordosis. For many with really chronic low back issues they may have lost the lordosis to a significant degree but working to support it is always better than allowing it to continue to be eliminated.

Check Two: Apply decompression to the neutral spine

This means now adding a stretch through the whole spine without bending it. This means in short we want the spine to be stretched, not the back rounded. 

Check Three: Pump where possible

Creating a pumping effect works better than a static stretch, don’t worry we’ll give you options for both as at home, there are trade offs with the methods you choose. 

Low back stretches you can do at home safely

We demonstrated how to do these three stretches as well as a bonus in the latest video on 3 ways to decompress your spine at home, so be sure to check that out after for a demo you can follow along with, but in short they are here:

  • The towel stretch: This is where you take a small rolled towel and lie over it so it supports the natural back curve and provides a gentle stretch through the spine whilst taking pressure off the muscles and ligaments.
  • The bed decompression: This is where you lie with your head and shoulders just off the end of your bed on your tummy and use your arms to gently add a stretch to your spine. This one is great for pumping.
  • The chair/sofa decompression: This stretch blends the towel’s support for lordosis, with the ability to add pumping like in the bed decompression, but it is a little more challenging to do, you are essential in a semi supported squat on the edge of your sofa and allowing the weight of your pelvis to gently stretch the spine, while the edge of your sofa supports the arch in your back.

How often should you stretch your back at home

The above are all methods of unloading your spine for free at home, they can be done for 3 to 5 minutes at a time and done multiple times per day. If you are in a position where you have pain in the lower back or sciatica, you may find doing these more regularly in the day can give your back a little more support and relief. Just focus on more frequent decompression stretching rather than longer decompression stretching when you’re doing these at home.

Tools to stretch your lower back at home safely

There are a couple of tools that you can use to help stretch your lower back in a way similar to the towel at home and these are often called “back stretchers”. We did a video comparing these devices a while ago and we covered a couple of options from the towel, to the classic £20 to £30 “back stretcher” that you can get off Amazon. We also covered an example of a more expensive back stretcher in the video on a review of these common back stretchers so check out the full release if you’re interested. 

Inversion tables for back decompression at home

This week we’ve also released a step by step guide to using inversion tables at home. These are great options for those of you with the budget of £300 to £500. They give you a way to decompress the whole lower back completely and provide a means of regular decompressive pumping to help with all manner of lower back injuries. If you have or end up purchasing one of these back stretchers, be sure to follow the beginners tips the first time you use the device as it will make sure you avoid common USER-ERRORS.

Other ways you can decompress your lower back:

There are of course other ways you can decompress the spine, these come in the form of clinical methods or surgical methods, we’ll cover both briefly here as they are very different. The most obvious way they are different is in the way in which decompression is used, and what is being decompressed. 

Surgical decompression for your lower back

This form of decompression is often referring to the compression of a bit of your spine, commonly the disc, on the nerves in your back. The most common form of this surgery would be a microdiscectomy which is a “minimally invasive” technique to remove the bit of herniated disc so it is no longer compressing the nerve. This however does not “decompress the spine” or stretch the spine, it is just removing some of the disc. 

Then we have more complex surgeries such as disc replacements which perhaps are not so much of a decompression but more a propping up of the disc through the insertion of an artificial disc. Surgeons will of course want to make sure that non-invasive options have been properly explored prior to such procedures.

Therapeutic decompression: the best stretch for your low back using IDD Therapy. 

A personal favorite of ours is IDD Therapy, this is a method for safely stretching the lower back so as to decompress the lumbar spine. It works on the neck too with a different set up – just for reference. This involves a more clinical application of stretch to the lumbar spine and is much more focused than the methods you can do at home, and with much more control. This option combined with other treatment methods, like those which we use at the Back In Shape Studio, and previously at The Mayfair Clinic offers a particularly effective non-invasive clinical treatment option.

Do your decompression stretches for your back health 

Ultimately, our modern lives put strain on our back, we spend time every day brushing our teeth, yet we only use them 2-3 times per day, why not spend a couple of times a day using the easy decompression stretches to help take the pressure off your back from this point on. You don’t need to have a “back injury” for it to be a worthwhile, “care of self” activity, that can simply help preserve your back health for the long term.

If you’re in pain then there is added motivation to be consistent with your back stretching at home, and now, at least you know what to avoid, and what you should be doing to practice good low back stretching. But remember, in order to rebuild your lower back from an injury, you must also be building resilience and you do this with strength based exercises as we have discussed many times before. 

It doesn’t take long but it must be done!

If you want a little more help with with your back health, stretching your back or just getting your Back In Shape again, and free from back pain or sciatica then there are 3 ways we can help you:

  • The Podcast and Youtube channel as a great source of free information on all things back & spine health. 
  • The membership to Back In Shape which gives you access to the full program and everything you need to rehabilitate your lower back from home.
  • Book in with us for a virtual or “in-person” consultation & treatment at the Back In Shape Studio
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  1. Regarding your Spinal Decompression video, I looked into the option of non -surgical clinical intervention with an NHS recommended Osteopath. The procedure was expensive, about 3,000 pounds and it was an 8 week program 3 days a week. I just could not afford the time, during the week, in addition to the high cost. This was before I had the anterolisthesis diagnosis identified by an X-Ray. However, in all fairness, the Osteopath’s opinion was that I did not need this procedure, based on his examination. thought you might find this interesting.

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