Why people dread stretching to help relieve lower back pain, but shouldn’t.

Updated March 2016

Stretching and Lower Back Pain


For those who have:

  1. Few issues with their lower back
  2. Significant flexibility
  3. Well conditioned muscles

Stretching is not a concern.

However, for most of the older population,those of us who have physical limitations or injuries, and especially for those already with lower back pain, stretching presents a major challenge, a perhaps a deterrent.

We may even have reasons to avoid it, including:

Irrelevant for our pain relief

Too difficult

Does not work for everyone

Having a specific stretch limit

Tried it and does not help and more.

Beyond the Limit

What most of us do not realize, is that there is:

 A specific stretch ‘threshold’ for each one of us.

Before we pass this threshold, there is discomfort and limited flexibility. After we cross it, there is significantly much less pain and substantial flexibility.  Most of us do not pass this threshold.

We do not pass this threshold simply because we don’t know that it is there.  Unfortunately, we mistakenly believe that stretching is more painful as you progress.  That stretching requires more pain in order to progress.  This is certainly magnified with existing conditions including back pain.

The threshold is different for everyone.  For some where stretching comes easily, their threshold comes quickly and even unnoticed.  For others with added complications, theirs is much higher.  Using poor form, technique, inadequate time and poor commitment the threshold becomes even higher.

Proper form, technique, time and determination bring this threshold down.  It allows faster healing from soft tissue damage, disc healing, decreased muscle tension and strain and subsequently reduced pain.

Muscle Tension

Muscles do not relax under pressure or tension unless an extended amount of time is allowed.  This means that you will need to stretch any given muscle group from 30 seconds to 5 full minutes depending on the muscle.  Some muscles are very tense, weak, tight or even injured.  For the first 10 to 30 seconds and sometimes even more, during a stretch your muscles are simply resisting the exercise.  They are not lengthening.  Sustaining the hold lets the muscle tire and relax. Anytime beyond this initial resistance in where the stretch actually begins.  There is little progress prior to this.  Tense lower back, and hip muscles in particular will resist the most.  Tight hamstrings are notorious for this resistance.  People with lower back pain have all of these issues.  The pain they have also raises the threshold to a level where the time and patience to endure the stretch is simply not there.  The muscle stretched should be warm up with some gentle exercise and should not be stretched if injured.  Wait for strains or tears to heal as this muscle with be too resistant to a stretch.

Stretch Slowly. Never Rush

In order for the stretch to benefit the user, it must be done slowly and never rushed.  Minimal but sustained tension that does not cause strain or injury is important.  It is necessary to invest a lot of initial time for each muscle group affecting the back.  There is no free lunch as you are not stretching for your time but for the time the muscles needs to resist resisting, relax, release, repair and recover.   Stretching slowly, although time consuming, is more comfortable and less taxing than rushing through while in discomfort.

Many of the exercises illustrated here, consist of both and strengthening and stretching component.  Both passive and active forms are important for increased flexibility and mobility.

Despite the emphasis on the importance of stretching, it is only one component of relieving lower back pain. Another component is mobility.