It seems to be a common idea that stretches for lower back pain are a good idea. One of the first things that many people do who have lower back is to try some stretching. What they don’t know is that some stretching exercises can actually cause more harm.
One important thing to know about the lumbar (lower back) vertebrae is they are much thicker those in the thoracic and cervical regions and so were not designed to rotate much. By comparison, thoracic vertebrae can turn almost 10 degrees whereas their lumbar counter parts can only rotate by a few.
So the thing to keep in mind is that the moderate twisting of the middle and upper portions of the spine is okay whereas rotational use of the lower spine should be perceived as a no-no. In fact, if you are given any exercise for the lower back that involves twisting the lumbar area, a red light should go off in your head and if you proceed, then do so cautiously.
A Few Bad Stretches for Your Lower Back
Here are three bad stretching exercises for you lower back:
1) Any exercise in which you are lying flat on your back with both shoulder blades on the floor in which your legs are up in the air and you move them from side to side thus twisting you lumbar region. Don’t do it.
2) Touching your toes in which you are rounding your spine—especially the lower back. If you bend forward at the hips and keep what is called a neutral lower back or a lower back which is at the same time arched backwards as you bend at the hips, this may be okay.
3) Any kind of stretch in which you hold your knees to your chest. This is bad because your lower back is lacking spinal stability because your back muscles can no longer contract.
Stretching May Result In a Bigger Problem
If anyone other than a doctor, healthcare professional or therapist shows you these exercises, run away. These types of exercises may temporary alleviate the pain you have but chances are the pain will come back worse than before. An exercise is not always good just because it feels good. Too much of the wrong kind of stretching may cause what is known as hypermobility syndrome.
But in some people, hypermobility causes joint pain and results in a higher incidence of dislocations, sprains and secondary osteoarthritis. Doctors refer to this as benign hypermobility syndrome. In benign hypermobility syndrome, the ligaments that provide joint stability are loose and weak. This increases the risk of ligament injury or strain and can cause pain.
You can read the full article about hypermobility here .
The wrong movements of the lower vertebrae may cause instability of the sacroiliac joint. What is the sacroiliac joint?
At the base of the spine there is a large bone called the sacrum which is shaped like an upside down triangle. The sacrum connects with the uppermost and largest bone of the pelvis called the ilium. The sacroiliac joint is the union or articulation of the sacrum and iliac held together by ligaments. If the ligaments become overstretched, joint instability may result.
Muscle stress imbalances come into play to help stabilize the sacroiliac joint. For instance, there is a muscle deep in the gluteal region called the piriformis which is one of the six muscles in the lateral rotator group of the gluteal region (buttox). It originates from the front part of the sacrum. If the piriformis has to help stabilize a loose sacroiliac joint it will become aggravated and affect the sciatic nerve which runs down the back of the leg.
Dr Joseph Horrigan who is Director of the Soft Tissue Center at DISC Sports & Spine Center says this:
When low back pain begins, the patient may put a stretching program into action by stretching the hamstring muscles in the back of their thighs. This stretch can be beneficial for cases of uncomplicated, mechanical low back pain. However, if the patient has pain radiating down the back of their legs from an inflamed nerve (radiculopathy), then the stretching may not be a wise idea.
Dr. Horrigan goes on:
Patients who have a lower lumbar disc injury and have inflamed the L5 or S1 nerve roots will have increased pain from a straight leg raise maneuver during an examination. The reason for the increased pain is because the inflamed nerve is being stretched. This straight leg raise, which is identical to a hamstring stretch, usually increases the patient's pain. The problem is that when the hamstring muscles are stretched, the L5 and S1 nerve roots are stretched as well. The end result from stretching the hamstring in these patients is the nerve pain is perpetuated. This lack of improvement in symptoms causes patients to seek other opinions and care elsewhere.
You can read Dr. Horrigan’s full article here.
He says that if stretching causes pain he’ll ask the patient to stop stretching for a couple months. Usually after only a week there is “noticeable improvement.”
So if you have recently had a traumatic lower back injury, have pain after stretching or you are trying a lower back pain treatment that is not working, it would be wise to avoid stretches for lower back pain. Go practice a program that will give you some back pain relief, take care of those ligaments and get a diagnosis from a licensed health care provider.