Do stretches for lower back pain work?
The answer is that, “It depends.”
Without exploring the what contributes to low back pain first any activities you engage in could easily cause severe long term damage.
To explore the answer first let’s look at primary categories of back pain.
- Acute Back Pain
- Recurring Acute Back Pain
- Chronic Back Pain
Acute Back Pain
Acute in this case refers to a sudden onset of a severe pain.
“Mike” never had any back pain in his life. One day, he was helping a friend move and as he leaned down to lift a heavy office desk, he felt a sharp pain in his lower back. He froze in place, unable to even breathe.
Mike is an example of how an acute back pain enters a picture. It is sudden and severe and in this case it is the first time Mike has experienced it.
Recurring Acute Back Pain
“John” is a martial artist. He has had low back pain on and off. They would usually last a few days. One night in class, as he turned sharply to execute a kick, he felt as if someone stabbed him in the back.
Mike and John both experience acute back pain. However, in John’s case we need to look at his behavior patterns more carefully. Is he doing something to destabilize his core and make him prone to back pain?
A personal journal may reveal that the appearances of his acute low back pain are not as he put it random “once in a while,” but they are regular and precise outcomes of certain training activities.
Because of recurring nature of John’s back pain, you could categorize it as chronic that we cover next. However, we need to separate wave like experiences from continuous ones. A wave pattern includes both ups and downs that make finding solutions easier.
In both cases, can we tell if John or Mike’s acute low back pain was caused by muscle spasm, a disc tear, a herniated disk, spondylolisthesis, vertebral fractures, Spinal stenosis. Scoliosis or even illnesses unrelated to the spine anatomy like diabetes or pinched nerve?
The answer is no.
In either case, stretching an injured and inflamed back increases the blood flow to the area of injury that increases the inflammation. Often inflammation is connected to pain. Activities that increase inflammation could easily increase the pain. In these cases, lower back pain stretches could cause serious harmful.
Chronic Back Pain
Chronic back pain is a continuous long term experience. Chronic conditions require support to persist. The support for a chronic back pain could come from a physical condition like a herniated disk.
Or it could come from overactivation of the back muscle due to muscular imbalances, poor posture, daily activities or exercise.
If chronic low back pain is related to muscular imbalances and muscle over activation, then stretches for lower back will help in several ways that we cover later.
However, all of the relief is short lived if stretching is done in isolation without addressing the other elements of muscular imbalances through a comprehensive and integrated approach that includes corrective exercises.
“Janet” loves to play volleyball and she considers her chronic low back pain a natural consequence of the game she loves to play.
She knows that he hip flexors are tight and when she stretches them as part of a flexibility routine, she feels immediate relief and she knows that it does not last.
Her behavior pattern is this. Play volleyball, stretch her hip flexors for temporary relief and live with the low back pain.
Janet does not realize that her lower ab weakness along with lack of control over glutes activation contribute to her hip flexors and erector spinae tightness. To exercise long term relief Janet needs t at the very least address these four elements.
Stretching the hip flexors which is a low back stretch and stretching erector spinae which is a back muscle without strengthen and improving the activation patterns of the lower abs and glutes will not provide long term relief.
Statistically most lower back pains are non-specific which means finding the source is difficult. However, you are not a statistical number. You have the ability to record events and analyze them.
A written record will help you and your health care provides to connect the dots and narrow down patterns that contribute to your low back pain and help you find long term solutions.
Solutions can rarely be isolated to a single activity. You can ask how to stretch lower back or you can ask how you can have a strong, stable and responsive body that includes the back.