10 Stretches You Can Do at Home for Chronic Back Pain

sciatica back pain

Back pain, especially lower back pain, is such a common complaint that 80% of people in the US will experience back pain some time in their life.

For acute back pain (caused by a known source of injury that eases with healing), stretching can help aid the injured fascia in your back to unkink. For chronic back pain (pain lasting 3+ months, with or without a known cause), adding stretching exercises to your daily routine can help manage your pain by maintaining the flexibility and strength of your muscles.

In many cases, muscle health and strength determines how well your spine is supported. Even stretching, when performed correctly, can serve not only to stretch the muscles and fascia, but strengthen them as well. (Not to mention that exercise always helps!)

There are myriad active stretches and exercises a wellness doctor can recommend to manage your back pain, but there are 10 we specifically like for their ease and efficacy:

1. Cat-Cow Pose

A staple of yoga and pilates warmups, this active stretch can ease your back into a stretching routine.

  1. Sit on your hands and knees with your back parallel to the floor. Knees should be directly under your hips; hands should be directly under your shoulders.
  2. Arch your back up by pulling your belly button into your spine and dropping your head. (cat)
  3. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
  4. Arch your back down by pulling your belly button towards the floor and raising your head and chest. (cow)
  5. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
  6. Repeat 20 times.

During these alternating arches, you should keep your core tight. You should feel a gentle stretch throughout your back and core, but it shouldn’t hurt. Listen to your body.

2. Hamstring Stretch

Hamstring strength and flexibility is associated with spinal health; making this one a stretch that does double-duty.

  1. Sit with your legs straight out in front of you, sat on your sit bones with your pelvis pulled straight.
  2. Keeping your spine straight, lean forward until you feel a stretch in your lower back and the backs of your thighs and calves.
  3. Hold for 20 breaths.
  4. Release the pose for 5 breaths.
  5. Repeat the stretch 2 or 3 times.

Careful not to stretch too hard; you don’t want to end up pulling something in your lower back or your hamstring.

3. Pelvic Tilt

This exercise serves not only to stretch the lower back, but to stabilize and strengthen your core.

  1. Lay on your back with your hands behind your head, and bend your knees, placing your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Without raising your upper spine, raise your lower back off the ground, tucking your pelvis upward and pulling your belly button towards the floor.
  3. Hold for 3 breaths.
  4. Lower your pelvis.
  5. Repeat 15-20 times.

This move is subtle; you’re not raising your pelvis very high, but just enough to feel the stretch in your lower back and maybe a bit of a burn in your quads and abs.

4. Seated Hip Rotation

Carefully twisting your trunk is a great way to prevent acute back pain brought on by movements that require hip rotation.

  1. Lay on your back, knees up, just like the starting position for the pelvic tilt. But instead of putting your hands behind your head, lay them straight out on each side in line with your shoulders, your palms facing down.
  2. Put your knees and feet together and raise your feet off the ground just a bit.
  3. Slowly drop your knees to one side, being careful to keep the opposite shoulder on the ground. It’s okay if your knees don’t touch the ground. Just stretch enough to feel it throughout your back and hips.
  4. Slowly return your knees to the neutral position.
  5. Repeat on the other side.
  6. Repeat this exercise 10-15 times.

This is another double-duty stretch, because your hip abductors are important to pretty much every motion you make. Actually, triple-duty, because this stretch strengthens your core and upper legs, since you’re keeping your feet and legs off the ground.

5. Knee-to-Chest/Slow Bicycles

This pose activates muscles across your entire body, and it’s a great way to decompress the vertebrae in your lower back.

  1. Lie on the floor on your back, legs straight out.
  2. Slowly bring one knee towards your chest, leaving the other leg straight out.
  3. Grab your knee and pull it towards your chest until you feel a stretch in your back, buttocks and back of your thigh.
  4. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  5. Repeat with the other leg.
  6. Do this 10 times on each side.

When done slowly, this acts as an active stretch. If you keep both your legs off the floor when extended and pick up the pace a little bit, it can also act as a no-impact light cardio and strengthening exercise.

6. Shoulder Blade Squeeze

This stretch helps to decompress the vertebrae in your neck and upper back, while also slightly stretching the muscles and ligaments along the entire length of your spine.

  1. Seated with your back straight, pull your shoulders back, imagining you’re trying to make your shoulder blades touch.
  2. Hold for 10 breaths, keeping your core tight and your back straight.
  3. Repeat 5 times.

Remember to keep your neck in line with your spine during this exercise. You should feel stretches throughout your entire abdomen. If anything hurts, release your shoulders bit by bit until you reach a point where the stretch feels okay.

7. Bridge Holds

This one’s great to do a few stretches after you do the pelvic tilt, as it’s a progression of the same principle.

  1. Lie on your back, knees up and feet hip-width apart, just like how you started the pelvic tilt. But for this stretch, your arms should be straight down your sides with your palms down.
  2. Raise your lower back until it creates a straight line with your thighs by pushing your feet and arms towards the floor.
  3. Hold for 3 breaths.
  4. Lower your back to the floor and relax your muscles, staying in the starting position.
  5. Repeat 15-20 times.

Bridge holds stretch and strengthen literally every part of your body from the chest down. And when held for 30-60 seconds per rep, are a great strengthening exercise for your back, buttocks, thighs, and core.

8. Baby Cobra

Another staple of yoga and pilates warmups, this pose stretches your chest, core, upper and lower back, while strengthening your arms and legs.

  1. Lay on your stomach, legs straight behind you, hands under your shoulders.
  2. Keeping everything but your chest on the ground, raise your upper torso by pushing your arms off the ground until you feel a stretch in your collarbone.
  3. Engage your core and pull your shoulder blades together as you hold the position for 10 breaths.
  4. Slowly lower your head, neck and chest to return to the starting position.
  5. Relax your body and give yourself a couple breaths fully-released like this.
  6. Repeat 5 times.

Everyone is going to have different flexibility, so everyone’s baby cobra will look different. Over time, you’ll be able to raise yourself until your arms are fully straight. But don’t hurry; overdoing this stretch can make your back pain worse.

9. Thread the Needle

This exercise serves to help your spine decompress, and it also supports rotational motions.

  1. Start in the same tabletop position as you would for a cat-cow stretch.
  2. Reach your right arm underneath your left arm, lowering that shoulder and keeping your palm up.
  3. Only lower yourself as much as your knees and hips are still stable and parallel to the floor.
  4. Hold for 10 breaths.
  5. Return to the tabletop. Maybe to a cat-cow or two.
  6. Repeat on the other side.
  7. Repeat the entire exercise (both sides = 1 rep) 3 times.

This is an active stretch to be careful with. Pay attention to your comfortable range of motion and don’t worry; it will get better over time. Only stretch enough that you feel it all the way down the elongated side and the lower back.

10. Child’s Pose

Whether a stretching or exercise routine, child’s pose is the best way to end a routine, especially for those of us with chronic lower back pain.

  1. Kneel with both knees on the ground, pulled together, and sit on the bottoms of your feet.
  2. Lay yourself over your thighs, arms reaching forward.
  3. Lean into the stretch, imagining your spine is lengthening. You should feel this mostly in your lower back and shoulders.
  4. Relax into the stretch and hold for 20 slow breaths.

This stretch releases all that work you did on your back and core, allowing your spine to fully decompress and for any still-engaged muscles to relax.

Prevent Back Pain with Stretching & Regular Exercise

As with many ailments, both mental and physical, a regular exercise program can prevent back pain and its recurrence. A meta-analysis of more than 20 quality clinical studies, which involved over 30000 participants, reaped evidence that long-term exercise to stabilize core muscles and strengthen the hips, thighs and calves via stretching, is effective at preventing back pain in 14-26% of people.

An active lifestyle with consistency in your stretching and exercise program can boost your overall health in general – hormonal regulation, sleep support, immune system function, cognitive function – and being in good health prevents myofascial pain of many kinds.

Whether your routine is used as an alternative therapy or an integrated one that includes regenerative treatments, it seems the real key to managing your back pain is adhering to habits suggested by your wellness doctor and physical therapist long-term.

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