Every so often, I have a client that comes in looking for one thing – a few stretches to ease their back pain. “Evan, my back is just so tight. I think if I just knew a few good stretches to do every day, I could loosen it up, and the back pain would go away. What do you suggest?”
Unfortunately, there is no ‘magic bullet’ stretch to help with back pain. In most cases, I am hesitant to recommend any stretches, as they often do more harm than good.
If you’ve tried stretching for back pain or tightness in the past, there is a scientific reason why you aren’t seeing results. That tightness you are feeling is not the result of ‘tight’ or ‘shortened’ muscles in the back. And even if it was, it’s very unlikely that stretching the muscle would do anything to ‘lengthen’ it and help with what you’re feeling. In fact, in some cases, stretching can do more harm than good, as it puts undue stress on tendons and ligaments that are not meant to be stretched.
Instead, that tightness is actually a function of the nervous system. For one reason or another, the nervous system is telling you that it does not feel comfortable going into the ranges of motion where you feel tightness.
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Sometimes, this nervous system becomes uncomfortable due to previous trauma or injuries. When the body suffers a trauma, the nervous system acts to protect the affected area. Often times, our bodies stay in this ‘protective’ state long after the injury has healed, leading to tightness and/or pain in the area.
Other times, pain and tightness in the back might occur when the muscles are not used properly or there is a weakness elsewhere in the body (for example: the hamstrings or hip flexors) that puts the back at risk for injury. The nervous system senses this risk, and puts it into that protective state, limiting the mobility of the back in order to protect it from future injury. As a result, you feel tightness or pain in the back, when the cause of the issue is really in the hamstrings or hip flexors (in this example).
So if stretching’s not working, what’s the solution? Convince the nervous system that it’s safe to take the back out of the ‘protective’ mode and put it back into ‘performance’ mode. You can do this by starting to use the muscles that feel tight. Find an exercise that strengthens the back. Start with very light weight (or no weight at all), and start working the back through a slightly larger range of motion than you would normally feel comfortable. Focus on activating the required muscles to control your body through the entire movement and maximize the neuromuscular effect of the exercise.
I also recommend incorporating a few leg exercises to your routine. We find that the majority of back pain is caused by strength deficits in the legs. As I mentioned earlier, when the muscles in the legs become weak and stop doing their jobs properly, the nervous system senses the back is at greater risk for injury, and may put the muscles into that tight feeling, protective state.
In order to strengthen the back and legs, remember to start with light loads – don’t push too hard too fast. The goal is to start feeling a little healthier each day, and adding too much weight too quickly may put that progress at risk.
The biggest takeaway? Stop stretching and start strengthening to find back pain relief.
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About the Author
Evan Lewis is a nationwide leader in Neuro Therapy and founded the Baltimore area's only specialist Neuro Therapy facility for people who want to stay active into their 40s, 50s, and beyond.
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