If you suffer from back pain, you’re not alone. In fact, the American Chiropractic Association estimates that approximately 31 million Americans experience lower back pain at any given time. Additionally, back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is the most common reason for missed work. The good news is that exercise is one of the best methods to treat back pain, especially in the lower lumbar spine. Research shows that spinal manipulation with exercise for back pain is just as effective as prescription NSAIDs in combination with exercise. So, here are some of the best expert-backed exercises to help heal lower back pain.
This gentle, supported twist is just what you need if you’re dealing with a tense, painful lower back. “It’s excellent for relieving spinal tension because it helps decompress the vertebrae without force and is also great for easing digestion,” says Dina Ivas, yoga instructor and founder of Yoga With Dina.
To perform this pose, first lie on your back with your arms in a T-shape position. Keep your palms facing up to soften your shoulders and pectoral muscles. Next, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Scootch your hips a bit to the left before slowly dropping your knees to the right. If your knees do not make contact with the ground, or each other, Ivas recommends placing a pillow between or beneath them for support. “Your head can remain neutral in the center. Or you can turn your head gently in the opposite direction of your knees, which may help ease neck pain,” she adds. “Stay for at least 3-5 minutes, breathing deep belly breaths, then switch sides.”
Though most of us wouldn’t correlate breathing techniques to relieving back pain, experts agree that it’s immensely helpful. “Since, on average, we take about 21,000 breaths each day, what other exercise can be done more than this daily?” says Drew Morcos, physical therapist and founder of MOTUS, a functional movement approach to clinical rehab for amateur and pro athletes.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, lay on your back and focus on breathing through your diaphragm by putting one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. “Feel your ribs and your belly laterally expand,” he says. “If your hand on your chest moves, then you’re breathing too much from your upper chest region.”
“When decreasing lower back pain, we need to understand the co-contractions needed to maintain stability for the whole body,” says Morcos. Basically, it’s important to know how each part of your body works together to keep you stable. That’s why, when establishing stability in the lumbar spine, other regions need to stabilize as well. “The trunk and lower back never contract independently so we need to train our body how to co-contract our upper and lower body simultaneously,” he says.
To set yourself up for this position, start on your hands and knees. “Be sure to place hands in line with your shoulders and your knees in line with your hips,” he says. “Open hands as wide as possible and put pressure on your toes and slowly raise up by lifting your knees 2 cm off the floor.” Maintain a neutral spine by keeping it as straight as possible. Hold for 10 seconds and progress the hold time without losing proper positioning.
These two yoga positions, which are most often performed before and after one another, are done while you’re in a table-top position on all fours. Keep your shoulders stacked over your arms, your hands turned out slightly, hips directly over your knees and toes pointing straight back. Yoga instructor Tiffany Caronia suggests starting with small a pelvic tilt, tipping your tailbone up towards the ceiling and down towards the floor.
Then move your spine through flexion and extension, allowing the movement to expand through your entire spine moving vertebra by vertebra. Basically, inhale and arch your back and let your stomach bend towards the floor; this is cow pose. Then reverse, exhaling and curving your spine towards the ceiling; this is cat. Repeat five times, moving seamlessly between the two positions.
Perhaps the most relaxing pose in the practice of yoga, child’s pose involves curling into a ball with your entire body hanging over your legs. “This restful posture elongates the entire spine and helps relieve head-to-toe stress after a long, hard day,” says Ivas.
Start on all fours with your arms stretched out straight in front of you in a wide V-shape, palms face down. Sit your hips back towards your heels, big toes touching, knees as wide or as close together as feels best for your back. Reach with your hands, feeling a stretch from fingertips to hips. “If your forehead does not reach the mat, or your hips do not reach your heels, plug up those spaces with a blanket to support your body.” Hold for ten deep breaths.
This quintessential yoga pose is excellent for stretching the hamstrings, says Ivas. “Come onto all fours and create a stable base with your hands by spreading your fingers wide and positioning your shoulders over your wrists,” she says. “Tuck your toes [to gain traction], lift your hips up and back. Softly bend your knees before pressing your rib cage towards your thighs to lengthen the spine and limber up the hamstrings.” It may also feel good to slowly peddle the heels, pressing the right heel towards the floor while bending the left knee, then alternating side to side several times, she adds.