The Best Stretches for Back Pain

Over 80% of people experience at least one episode of back pain at some point in their lives, so it is important to understand proper stretches to help prevent or heal an aching back.


Back pain is mostly caused by an activity resulting in sharp pain in your lower back or a lack of activity causing stiff, unused muscles that are unable to keep up with daily demands. Below are a few common reasons for back pain:

  • Strains and sprains: Overstretching, lifting something incorrectly, or twisting movements are a few examples of how you can strain or sprain your back.
  • Herniated or ruptured discs: When a disc herniates, the nucleus pushes against the outer ring (annulus) and puts pressure on the sensitive spinal nerves, causing back pain, numbness, tingling, and/or weakness.
  • Sciatica: A sharp lower back pain that radiates down through your glutes and legs, due to compression on the sciatic nerve. This often occurs after a herniated or ruptured disc.

Importance of Exercise and Stretching

Regular exercise and stretching play pivotal roles in maintaining back health and preventing episodes of pain. Benefits include:

  • Muscle Support: Strengthening the muscles surrounding the spine provides essential support, reducing the risk of injury and promoting proper alignment.
  • Flexibility: Stretching exercises help maintain flexibility in the muscles and ligaments, improving range of motion and reducing stiffness.
  • Posture Improvement: Consistent stretching and exercise routines can correct poor posture habits, relieving strain on the back muscles and reducing the likelihood of pain.

Stretching guidelines to safely and effectively relieve your back pain:

  1. Start Gradually: Begin with gentle stretches and gradually increase the intensity as your muscles loosen up. Avoid forcing movements that cause pain or discomfort.

  2. Focus on Proper Technique: Pay attention to your form and technique during stretches. Maintain proper alignment and avoid straining or overextending your muscles.

  3. Breathe Deeply: Remember to breathe deeply and rhythmically during each stretch. Inhale deeply as you prepare for the stretch, and exhale slowly as you ease into it. Deep breathing helps relax tense muscles and enhances the effectiveness of the stretch.

  4. Hold Each Stretch: Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds to allow your muscles to lengthen and relax. Avoid bouncing or jerking movements, as they can strain the muscles and lead to injury.

  5. Listen to Your Body: Pay attention to your body’s signals during stretching. If you experience sharp pain or discomfort, ease off the stretch immediately. It’s normal to feel mild tension during stretching, but stop if you feel any sharp or shooting pain.

  6. Focus on Both Sides: Balance your stretching routine by targeting both sides of your body equally. If you stretch one side, be sure to stretch the other side as well to maintain symmetry and prevent muscle imbalances.

  7. Incorporate Variety: Include a variety of stretching exercises that target different muscle groups in your back, including the lower back, upper back, and hips. This helps improve overall flexibility and mobility in the spine.

  8. Stay Consistent: Consistency is key to experiencing the benefits of stretching for back pain relief. Aim to incorporate stretching into your daily routine, whether it’s in the morning, after exercise, or before bedtime.

  9. Combine Stretching with Other Therapies: Consider combining stretching with other therapies such as massage, chiropractic care, or physical therapy for comprehensive back pain management.

  10. Seek Professional Guidance: If you’re unsure about which stretches are best for your specific condition or if your back pain persists despite stretching, consult with a healthcare professional or a qualified physical therapist for personalized guidance and treatment recommendations.

Stretches to Relieve Upper Back Pain

Upper back pain, often attributed to poor posture, stress, or muscle tension, can significantly impact daily activities and overall well-being. Incorporating targeted stretches into your routine can help alleviate discomfort and improve flexibility in the thoracic spine and surrounding muscles. Here are some effective stretches to target upper back pain:

  1. Thoracic Extension Stretch: Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Place your hands behind your head, elbows pointing out to the sides. Gently arch your upper back, lifting your chest towards the ceiling while keeping your lower back and neck in a neutral position. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, focusing on opening up the thoracic spine and releasing tension between the shoulder blades.

  2. Doorway Stretch: Stand in a doorway with your arms bent at 90-degree angles and forearms resting against the door frame. Lean forward slightly, allowing your chest to open up as you feel a stretch across the front of your shoulders and chest. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, then relax. This stretch helps counteract the forward rounding of the shoulders often associated with upper back pain.

  3. Thread the Needle Stretch: Begin on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Reach your right arm underneath your left arm, threading it between your left arm and left knee, until your right shoulder and temple are resting on the floor. Extend your left arm overhead, feeling a deep stretch along the right side of your upper back and shoulder. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then switch sides. This stretch helps release tension in the muscles surrounding the spine and shoulders.

  4. Upper Trapezius Stretch: Sit or stand tall with your shoulders relaxed. Gently tilt your head to the right, bringing your right ear towards your right shoulder until you feel a stretch along the left side of your neck and upper trapezius muscle. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then switch sides. Avoid shrugging your shoulders or tensing your neck during the stretch to maximize its effectiveness.

  5. Shoulder Blade Squeeze: Sit or stand with your arms by your sides. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as if trying to hold a pencil between them, while simultaneously pulling your shoulders down away from your ears. Hold the squeeze for 5-10 seconds, then relax. Repeat 10-15 times to strengthen the muscles between the shoulder blades and improve posture.

Stretches to Alleviate Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain is a common complaint among individuals of all ages and lifestyles. Incorporating targeted stretches into your routine can provide relief and improve mobility in the lumbar region. Here are some stretches specifically tailored to alleviate lower back discomfort:

  1. Child’s Pose: Start on your hands and knees, then sit back on your heels while reaching your arms forward on the ground. Allow your forehead to rest gently on the mat or floor. This stretch elongates the spine and helps release tension in the lower back muscles.

  2. Cat-Cow Stretch: Begin on your hands and knees with a neutral spine. Inhale as you arch your back, dropping your belly towards the floor and lifting your head and tailbone upwards (Cow Pose). Exhale as you round your spine, tucking your chin to your chest and drawing your belly button towards your spine (Cat Pose). Repeat this flowing motion for several breaths to gently massage and stretch the lower back.

  3. Piriformis Stretch: Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross your right ankle over your left knee, then gently draw your left thigh towards your chest until you feel a stretch in the right gluteal area. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds, then switch sides. This stretch targets the piriformis muscle, which can contribute to lower back discomfort when tight or inflamed.

  4. Seated Spinal Twist: Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Bend your right knee and place your right foot on the outside of your left knee. Twist your torso to the right, placing your left elbow on the outside of your right knee and gently pressing to deepen the stretch. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then switch sides. This stretch helps release tension in the muscles surrounding the spine, particularly the lower back.

  5. Hamstring Stretch: Tight hamstrings can contribute to lower back pain by pulling on the pelvis and creating tension in the lumbar region. Lie on your back with one leg extended on the floor and the other leg raised towards the ceiling. Use a strap or towel to gently pull the raised leg towards your chest until you feel a stretch in the back of the thigh. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then switch legs.

  6. Kneeling Back/Hip Extension: Start by kneeling with your arms crossed over your chest or arms straight up towards the ceiling. From this position, you will start hinging at the hips, pushing your butt back towards your heels, and chest forward maintaining a neutral spine. Lower as far as you can until you cannot keep a neutral spine. This stretch should be felt in your lower back and your abdominals.

Incorporate these stretches into your daily routine to promote flexibility, alleviate discomfort, and support overall lower back health. Remember to listen to your body and avoid pushing into pain during stretches. If you experience persistent or worsening symptoms, consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance and treatment options tailored to your needs.

If your back pain persists or you would like to determine the cause of your pain, contact one of our doctors for an evaluation.