Back pain is a rampant part of our current society. According to the CDC, 25% of U.S. adults report having low back pain in the last three months.
One of the most popular self-treatments for low back pain is stretching.
If you google back pain, you’ll probably see pages of articles with titles like “the best stretches for low back pain” or “best low back stretches for pain.”
Here’s the thing, this advice is outdated and just generally flawed. Most of this advice lacks a fundamental understanding of biomechanics and the ways our body perceives and protects us from “threats.” Yet, even medical professionals will recommend stretching as it’s been indoctrinated into our society as a fix for pain and stiffness.
So why do so many people think stretching is helping their low back pain? Along with the indoctrination mentioned above, stretching is a simple way to elicit an analgesic (relieving) effect.
The problem is that pain relief is almost always short-lived.
If stretching was indeed the fix, why do you have to stretch constantly?
If you’ve suffered from back pain, you might have experienced this.
You stretch. It feels good for 15 minutes. Then you have to stretch again. This continues for weeks or months.
The reason for this can be somewhat complicated.
So here is a broad overview of why stretching can just make you feel worse.
What does the spine do?
First, let’s go over the role of the spine.
The spine is there to create stability and transfer forces between the upper and lower body. Stability is the ability of the spine to control movement and limit it when necessary. The more force you’re trying to transfer between the upper and lower body, the more your spine needs to resist those forces. Remember, the spine also contains the spinal cord, which needs to be protected at all costs.
Around the spine, both muscles and ligaments work to support the spinal segments. In addition, small muscles in between each segment, called multifidus and rotatores muscles, offer individual support to each vertebra.
These tiny muscles don’t act in the same way your biceps or quads work. You don’t have active control over them. Instead, they are packed with sensory organs that constantly monitor the spine’s position. These small muscles are ready to turn on or off widespread muscle tone to an area of perceived threat.
So, if those small muscles within the spinal column perceive any type of “instability,” say too much spinal flexion (rounding), or threat involving the spine, they will respond by increasing the tone of the surrounding area.
This reflex can lead to the feeling of tightness.
Why you shouldn't stretch your low back
Now that you understand a basic overview of the spine, it might make sense why all that stretching never works long-term. It usually just makes it worse.
Stretching a stiff low back does feel good for a little while, but it’s also forcing movement into an area that might be trying to REDUCE movement. Your body can simply respond to this stretching by increasing the muscular tone in that area, leading to a more intense feeling of tightness. This can lead to a constant loop of increasing back pain and stiffness.
What to do for low back pain?
So, what should you do for low back pain?
The key is to stop trying to temporarily treat the symptoms and address the key reason for the back pain in the first place.
Performing exercises like deadbugs, suitcase carries, farmer carries, and other core-focused exercises to improve strength and stability is your best bet.
Another important piece of helping rid yourself of low back pain is movement in general. If sitting or driving for long periods is causing your low back pain to flare up, finding alternative positions and moving throughout the day can make a huge difference. Things like requesting a standing desk and going for walks every 15 minutes will probably help more long-term than repeated stretching.