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Simple Stretches for Lower Back Pain

Back pain is not a disease, but rather may show up as myriad symptoms with no known cause. It affects people of all ages and races as well as both genders. The World Health Organization1 states it's difficult to estimate the incidence, as your first episode likely happens by early adulthood and the symptoms of low back pain often recur over time.

The lifetime prevalence for anyone experiencing back pain at some point in their lives is estimated to be 60% to 70% in industrialized countries. It is the leading cause of mobility limitation and work absence, and it imposes a high economic burden for Americans, estimated at $100 billion in health care costs, lost wages and lost productivity every year.2

Researchers have found the prevalence increases beginning in the third decade of life3 and that it's the single leading cause of disability, preventing many from engaging in everyday activities.4 It is one of the most common reasons for people to miss work and is the third most common reason people visit the doctor's office.

Many cases are related to mechanical or nonorganic causes, which means they are not triggered by a condition such as arthritis, fracture or cancer.5 In one meta-analysis6 of 13 studies, researchers evaluated the prevalence and incidence of low back pain and found nine studies that identified risk factors including age, sex and race.

In four other studies the researchers identified high intensity physical activity, high spinal loading, lifting, bending and twisting as risk factors for low back pain.7 Although age, sex and race are not controllable, the activity factors are and respond well to lifestyle adjustments.

Stretches help mobilize your lower back

Your back and spine support much of your body's weight while your abdominal core muscles help support your spine. Once you experience lower back pain, it may be a challenge to get up and move, but you'll find low-impact activity often helps reduce the pain. It also speeds healing. Exercise and movement help to loosen tense muscles that cause pain.

Pain may become a vicious cycle, where you have spasms that make you not want to move; this triggers more back spasms. A daily exercise program with strength training and stretching may improve strength and flexibility, which will speed up your recovery and make it less likely to happen again.

One stretch you may be tempted to use to loosen your lower back muscles is a standing toe touch. However, there are multiple reasons why this is bad for your back.8 The goal of the standing toe touch is to stretch your hamstrings so that it reduces the pressure on your lower back. But, the stretch increases the burden to your lower back and places pressure on your lumbar discs.

When you push your legs together and lock your knees as you bend over it forces flexion only in the lower back and stresses the spinal discs. If you already have an injury to your lumbar discs, it may increase the risk for aggravation or further injury.9 Instead, consider these three stretches to mobilize your lower back:10

• Cobra pose — This traditional beginner yoga pose is a gentle backbend position accomplished from a face-down, on-the-floor exercise.11 The goal is to strengthen the spine while opening the chest. It is also an excellent counter activity to relieve overstretched upper back and tight chest muscles that often occur because of working over a desk.

Begin by lying on the floor on your stomach, stretching your legs behind you and placing the tops of your feet on the floor.12 Put your hands under your shoulders and keep your elbows close to your body. Press the tops of your feet, thighs and lower pelvis firmly into the floor while straightening your arms to lift your chest.

Go only as high as you can while maintaining connection from your lower pelvis through your toes on the floor. Hold this for 15 seconds to begin with, and then build to 30 seconds as you grow stronger. Inhale on the way up and exhale with your release on the way down.

• Cat-cow pose — This basic yoga pose is breath-synchronized and it warms up the spinal muscles.13 Begin with your knees and hands on the floor and your back straight in a table position. Your shoulders should be over your wrists, and your knees directly under your hips, with your weight balanced on all four evenly.

Move into a concave position as you inhale through your abdomen, tipping your belly toward the floor and lifting your eyes toward the ceiling. Exhale while drawing your belly button toward your spine and slowly move into an arched back position with your chin resting on your chest. Do not hold in the cat or cow position but move gently and smoothly through both.

• Child pose — This pose is a resting pose used between more rigorous yoga exercises.14 Start by kneeling with your feet together while sitting on your heels. Move your knees apart so they are as wide as your hips.

Exhale while lowering your body down between your thighs. Lengthen your lower back away from your pelvis and lay your hands on the floor, palms up along your body. In the beginning, start with 30 seconds and work up to two to three minutes as you're comfortable.

Altering your posture may reduce lower back stress

Using good posture is about more than standing up straight and looking your best; it's crucial to your long-term health. Posture affects your balance, food digestion and breathing. When you don't use your body in the right way, it places additional stress on your back, hips and knees and increases your risk for pain and injury. The key to good posture is to place your spine in a neutral position.

Slouching or straining at your desk may increase your risk of back pain and neck pain, while using ergonomics to modify your workstation may reduce these risks. To stand properly and reduce the stress and strain on your lower back, you'll want to bear weight on the balls of your feet and keep your knees slightly bent.15

As you stand and walk your feet should be about shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing forward. Stand straight and tall with your shoulder blades pulled down and your stomach tucked in. Keep your head and earlobes in line with your shoulders, as your head is heavy and keeping it forward adds stress to your upper back.16

While seated, your feet should touch the floor and you shouldn't cross your legs.17 Keep a small gap between the backs of your knees and the front of your seat. Then, adjust the backrest of your chair so your lower- and mid-back are supported. Avoid sitting in the same position for long periods of time.

Instead, switch sitting positions often and get up frequently to stretch or walk around.18 Keep your shoulders back and relaxed so they're not rounded forward. Improving your posture not only will help reduce wear and tear on your spine, but also will reduce neck, shoulder and back pain.

The shoes you wear also have an impact on your posture and may add additional stress to your lower back, legs and even your neck.19 For instance, high heels change your body's alignment and may increase your risk of lower back pain. Seek out properly fitted, comfortable shoes that support your feet. If necessary, consider talking with a podiatrist or foot specialist.

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