In this blog post, I’ll be sharing six stretches that you can do to help manage flareups of low back pain or stiffness.
If you were to ask me “what is the best stretch for low back pain?” My answer is that some stretches might help some people, some of the time (that’s probably not the answer you’re looking for). That’s because several different structures in the low back could be the source of your back pain. The intervertebral disks, facet joints, ligaments, muscles, bones or nerves could all be pain generators and each would require a different form of treatment.
Before you try to fold yourself into a pretzel to stretch away low back pain, I would like you to think about this simplified concept about the way the body moves. It’ll help you understand why a chiropractor, physio or other healthcare providers might prescribe these stretches. I have discussed this concept in a previous blog post I wrote about stretching before or after a CrossFit WOD, but I feel it’s something important to take into consideration.
The Joint-By-Joint Approach
The body is an extremely complex machine and just a simple task like walking requires a precise balance of stability and mobility. Some joints are required to remain stable and transfer force so that other joints can move through a wider range of motion. Dave Cook and Mike Boyle, two well known physical therapists in the USA and founders of the Functional Movement Systems (FMS) and the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), managed to simplify the extremely complex topic of human biomechanics.
The joint-by-joint approach suggests that the body is a stack of joints arranged on top of one another in an alternating pattern of stability and mobility. If that pattern were to change, that’s when we might see injuries or pain occurring. The reason for that is if the mobile joints were to lose mobility because of previous injury, occupational or postural factors, the stable joint will compensate by giving up some of its stability and that’s when problems occur.
Look at the picture above, the pattern from the foot up to the cervical spine is in a pattern of stable-mobile-stable-mobile. The foot is stable, the ankle is mobile, the knee is stable, the hip is mobile, the lumbar spine stable, the thoracic spine is mobile. You get the idea.
By definition, a stable joint can allow controlled movement or limit movement at a certain body part. Stable joints tend to favour moving in a single plane of motion over the other two planes of motion. Mobile joints can move freely in all three planes of motion. The low back or lumbar spine is considered to be a stable segment of the body. The shape and orientation of the facet joints in your lumbar spine allow mostly for flexion and extension to occur, but very little rotation or lateral flexion.
Stable Vs Mobile Joints
By definition, a stable joint can allow controlled movement or limit it at a certain body part. Stable joints tend to favour moving in a single plane of motion over the other two planes of motion. Mobile joints can move freely in all three planes of motion. The low back or lumbar spine is considered to be a stable segment of the body. The shape and orientation of the facet joints in your lumbar spine mostly allow for flexion and extension to occur, but very little rotation or lateral flexion.
Lumbar spine instability can lead to low back pain and compensatory muscle spasms that can be perceived as stiffness or “poor spinal mobility”. This is because the body is trying to create stability in the low back any way it can by abnormally recruiting the postural muscles as stabilisers. Stretching these tight muscles might only give you temporary relief from low back pain. However, if you’re lacking mobility in the thoracic spine and hips, improving mobility in these areas will mean that your low back won’t need to compensate, resulting in improved stability which could be a long term solution to your back pain.
Different Stretching Techniques
The two types of stretches that you may be familiar with are static and dynamic stretching.
In short, a static stretch is the traditional stretch that you might be familiar with. It involves taking a limb or muscle towards its end range of motion and holding it there for 15 to 60 seconds. A dynamic stretch involves repetitively moving a body part or muscle to its end range of motion and back again in a smooth controlled manner.
The third type of stretching is the contract-relax method. It’s a form of Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation or PNF stretching. It involves putting the target muscle on a gentle stretch and then contracting the muscle for 5-10 seconds, relax and then repeat that cycle two to three times.
Before you stretch
Please take note that you should feel no pain at all while performing these stretches. It’s important to stop right away if you experience any pain and get advice from a trusted healthcare professional that deals with musculoskeletal disorders. Let’s discuss the different stretches