Almost everyone can benefit from stretching the soft tissues - the muscles, ligaments and tendons - in the back, legs, buttock, and around the spine.
The spinal column and its contiguous muscles, ligaments, and tendons are all designed to move, and limitations in this motion can make back pain worse.
How the Spine May Produce Back Pain
Many different structures in the spine can cause back pain, potentially when:
- The large nerve roots that go to the legs and arms are irritated
- The smaller nerves that innervate the spine are irritated
- The large paired back muscles (erector spinae) are strained
- The bones, ligaments or joints themselves are injured
- The disc space itself is a source of pain.
Ongoing back pain may take weeks or months of stretching and other back exercises to mobilize the spine and soft tissues, but will find that meaningful and sustained relief of back pain will usually follow the increase in motion.
The thoracic spine (upper back)
The 12 vertebral bodies in the upper back make up the thoracic spine. The firm attachment of the rib cage at each level of the thoracic spine provides stability and structural support to the upper back and allows very little motion.
The thoracic spine is basically a strong cage and it is designed to protect the vital organs of the heart and lungs.
The upper back is not designed for motion, and subsequently, injuries to the thoracic spine are rare. However, irritation of the large back and shoulder muscles or joint dysfunction in the upper back can produce very noticeable back pain.
The lumbar spine (lower back)
The lower back has a lot more motion and also carries all the weight of the torso, making it the most frequently injured area of the spine.
The motion in the lumbar spine is divided between five motion segments, although a disproportionate amount of the motion is in the lower segments (L3-L4 and L4-L5). Consequently, these two segments are the most likely to breakdown from wear and tear (e.g. osteoarthritis). The two lowest discs (L4-L5 and L5-S1) take the most strain and are the most likely to herniate. This can cause lower back pain and possibly numbness that radiates through the leg and down to the foot (sciatica).
The majority of lower back pain is caused by muscle strain. Even though a muscle strain doesn't sound like a serious injury, trauma to the muscles and other soft tissues (ligaments, tendons) in the lower back can cause severe back pain. The good news is that soft tissues have a good blood supply, which brings nutrients to the injured area, facilitates the healing process and often provides effective relief of the back pain.
The sacral region (bottom of the spine)
Below the lumbar spine is a bone called the sacrum, which makes up the back part of the pelvis. This bone is shaped like a triangle that fits between the two halves of the pelvis, connecting the spine to the lower half of the body.
The sacrum is connected to part of the pelvis (the iliac bones) by the sacroiliac joints. Pain in the sacrum is often called sacroiliac joint dysfunction. This is more common in women than men as a common cause of sacroiliac joint dysfunction is pregnancy. During pregnancy, hormones are released in the woman's body that allows ligaments to relax. This prepares the body for childbirth. The additional weight and walking pattern associated with pregnancy also places additional stress on the Sacroiliac joints.
General Tips for Stretching to Relieve Back Pain
A typical response to experiencing back pain is to take it easy - either staying in bed or at least stopping any activity that is at all strenuous. While this approach is understandable and may even be recommended in the short term, but if done for more than a day or two it can actually undermine healing. Instead, active forms of back exercises are almost always necessary to rehabilitate the spine and help alleviate back pain.
When done in a controlled, gradual, and progressive manner, active back exercises distribute nutrients into the disc space and soft tissues in the back to keep the discs, muscles, ligaments, and joints healthy. Consequently, a regular routine of lower back exercises helps avoid stiffness and weakness, minimize recurrences of lower back pain, and reduce the severity and duration of possible future episodes of low back pain.
Keep the following in mind when starting a stretching routine as part of a program of back exercises:
- Wear comfortable clothes that won't bind
- Stretching should be pain free; do not force the body into difficult positions
- Move into the stretch slowly and avoid bouncing, which may actually tear muscles
- Stretch on a clean, flat surface that is large enough to move freely
- Hold stretches long enough (20-30 seconds) to allow muscles or joints to become loose
- Repeat the stretch, generally 5-10 times