We’ve all been there: You twist your body awkwardly while doing a relatively benign task and suddenly—Ugh, my back hurts! Back pain is the worst because it makes everything else in your life that much more challenging, whether it be parenting, sitting at your desk at work, or trying to find the motivation to exercise.
There are many different kinds of back pain. The kind that can be served by gentle movements like stretching is often caused by a sedentary lifestyle. Then there’s the kind of back pain that necessitates real rest. Almost all pain can benefit from a little help from a massage therapist, acupuncturist, or physical therapist. Often ice and/or a bath can help, too. It’s important to mention, though, that if the pain is really severe—or won’t dissipate—you should go see a doctor.
The key to relieving any kind of back pain is to work gently and slowly. Whatever you do, don’t force any movements, and consider consulting with a bodyworker or yoga teacher in addition to speaking with your doctor. “It’s not wise to prescribe poses for certain conditions or populations without a full intake and assessment,” explains yoga teacher Steffany Moonaz, PhD, RYT-500.
For back pain specifically, “avoid forward folds and any twist where both hips are weight bearing,” explains yoga teacher Sonya Kuropatwa, RYT-500. “It’s a bit counterintuitive, but gentle backbends can bring a lot of relief.”
Why am I having back pain?
There are so many reasons people experience lower back pain, which is part of the reason why it can be challenging to treat. We spoke to Jennifer Brilliant, a certified yoga teacher, therapist, and medical exercise specialist who has been teaching yoga for more than 30 years. Here are some basic causes of lower back pain:
- Tension (in the back itself, and/or surrounding areas)
- Compression resulting from poor posture
- Lack of mobility or a sedentary lifestyle
- Sudden movements
- Muscle spasm or muscle strain
- Obesity, which can be hard on the joints in the body
And then there are some more serious causes:
- Disc bulge or herniation—This inflammation and pain is associated with pressure on a disc. Specifically, it is when the disc between two vertebrae begins to seep out, pressing on the nerve, typically causing sciatic pain down one or both legs. The pain associated with a bulging or herniated disk can dissipate within six weeks.
- Spinal stenosis—This is a narrowing of the spaces within your spine, which can put pressure on the nerves. This most often occurs in the lower back and neck.
- Spondylolisthesis—This is when one vertebra slips forward onto the vertebra below. It can cause nerve pain and/or numbness in the legs.
One reason why the cause of lower back pain can sometimes be mysterious or hard to identify is that it doesn’t always occur at the exact moment of injury, and it may point to an underlying problem. “One of my clients was helping to turn a piano at a New Year’s Eve party,” Brilliant shares. “He felt totally fine the next day. Then on January 2, he had severe nerve pain in his leg. It turns out he has stenosis—a narrowed spinal canal—which gives someone with a disc herniation less leeway when a disc pushes out of place.”
Lower Back Pain Prevention: Why it is important to engage in regular strengthening and stretching?
“Our bodies like to move,” Brilliant explains. “Movement is like nutrition for the body, giving us wholesome circulation and energy. Engaging in regular activity is important.” This can be anything, really: walking, swimming, dancing, sports. These are all good for our muscles and hearts. But Brilliant advises beginning any program incrementally—don’t just jump into an hour-long workout.
Brilliant always encourages people to try yoga and Pilates but emphasizes the importance of a good teacher. “Not every pose is for every particular body, and a good teacher will help you to modify what you do.”
How can women keep their lower backs healthy?
“There is sometimes a misconception that very strong abs will keep your back healthy,” explains Brilliant. “The abdomen muscles have to be strong, but so do the back and the side muscles.” And we cannot forget the legs and pelvis, which support the spine.
Here is one of Brilliant’s favorite exercises for a stable foundation:
This engages the back muscles, the buttocks and hamstrings, the shoulder musculature, and the whole of your core.
- Start on all fours.
- Extend one leg back and up at hip height. Hold for three to five breaths to begin, then lower your leg.
- Lift the opposite arm forward and up alongside your ear. Hold for three to five breaths, then lower your arm.
- Lift both the leg and the opposite arm at the same time. Hold for three to five breaths.
- Repeat the motion using your other arm and leg
When do you know lower back pain is really serious or a sign of something else?
If you have a trusted bodyworker—a masseuse, acupuncturist, or physical therapist —you can always start there. But since it’s often hard to tell when back pain is a sign of something more serious, it’s wise to get an opinion from a doctor you trust if your back pain is frequent or doesn’t resolve quickly.
Lower Back Stretches To Try At Home
Below are some poses that I’ve benefited from—and that the yoga teachers and bodyworkers we consulted with recommend or find relief in themselves. But, as with all pain, the treatment must be specific to your experience, so be sure to consult a trusted healthcare provider or bodyworker about your individual needs.
This is very refreshing to the spine, giving it a chance to rotate and lengthen. It can be done in many different ways—lying down, sitting up (cross-legged or on your knees), or in a chair, but it’s best on your back.
On your back: Lie down on your back and bring your knees into your chest. Let your legs fall to the right. Use your right hand to hold onto the left thigh. Let your upper body relax onto the floor and extend your left arm out, looking out over your left shoulder. Breathe here for 30 seconds, allowing the left shoulder blade to drop to the ground and the knees to drop to the right. Repeat on the other side.
In a chair: Plant your feet on the ground. Extend your arms up and twist to the right. Your left arm will hold onto the back of the chair and your right arm will rest on your right knee. On your inhale, extend your spine; on the exhale gently twist a little further. Repeat on the other side.
Starting on your hands and knees, place your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. As you inhale, drop your belly and lift your gaze up to the ceiling. As you exhale, round the spine so your tailbone drops between your thighs and your head moves between your arms. Your belly button should rise up toward the spine as you exhale. Do this slowly as many times as you need to give your spine some much-needed mobility.
Widen your legs so they are a little more than hip-distance apart. Bend your knees so that your thighs are parallel to the ground. Your heels should stay on the ground. Bring your hands into a prayer pose at your chest—palms pressed together—and use your elbows to press your knees out.
If your heels don’t touch the ground: Roll up a towel or mat and place it under your heels so you can have complete contact with some surface.
If this is too hard on your hips: Place a yoga block (or little stool, or a stack of books) under your butt so you can sit down.
4. Baby Cobra
Sometimes the best thing to do for back pain is to backbend in a very gentle way. “Forward flexion increases pressure on the lumbar discs,” explains Dana Kotler, MD, a rehabilitation specialist in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. “We live our life in constant lumbar flexion, sitting, forward bending to pick things up. Lumbar extension actually unloads the discs.”
Lie on your stomach with your legs together, arms bent, and palms on the ground by your breasts (your elbows will be pointed up). Your forehead will be on the ground initially. Inhale and lift your chest up. Remember not to push your chin forward, compressing your neck. The back of your neck should be long. Exhale and return your forehead to the mat. Repeat a few times.
5. Psoas Stretch
The psoas muscle extends from your lowest vertebrae to the top of your thigh. When it gets tight, it can wreak havoc on the lower back. The easiest way to stretch it is by lunging. With your right leg in front of you, place your left knee on the floor. Tuck your tail slightly and place your hands on your front knee. Breathe here and let your hips gently move forward. Switch sides.
The most important reminder when it comes to lower back stretches: “Find something that you like to do,” says Brilliant, “because if it’s drudgery, then you’ll be less likely to stick with it.”