If you have a spine and you’re standing upright on two feet all day, you’re going to have back pain at some point in your life. That’s about as guaranteed as the sun coming up every day, or some lunkhead cutting you off on the Turnpike. So, what should you do about it? Rest, of course, is necessary, particularly if the pain is acute. But there are also various exercises that can help stretch the muscles in your back in the short term and strengthen them in the long term. That will help to head off future back pain.
Since we see patients with back pain and back damage every day at our four Coastal Spine offices, we like to help our patients head off back issues before they become more serious. Toward that end, here are some exercises to do and to avoid when you have lower back pain.
Partial crunches good, sit-ups bad
Everyone wants a stronger core, as that will help head off future back injuries. The stronger the muscles in our lower abdomen, the more protected we are. This is particularly true now that most of us spend all day sitting at a desk. People often think sit-ups are the way to a stronger core, but they really can do more harm than good. Most people use muscles in their hips when doing sit-ups, rather than their core muscles. And sit-ups put tons of pressure on your spinal discs, and you don’t want to do that.
Partial crunches are good, however. Lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross your arms over your chest or put your hands behind your neck. Tighten your stomach muscles and raise your shoulders off the floor. You want to feel as if you’re raising your face and shoulders straight upward. Hold for one second and then lower back down. Repeat up to 15 times. Keep your feet, tailbone, and lower back on the floor through this and it’ll help.
No toe touching
When your lower back is aching, there is a tendency to think that stretching it out by touching your toes (or at least attempting to) is good. Not so. Standing toe touches put lots of stress on your discs and the ligaments in your spine.
Do hamstring stretches
It’s better to stretch this area while lying on your back. Bend one knee and put that foot on the floor. Raise your other leg and loop a towel under the ball of your foot. Straighten your knee, slowly pulling back on the towel. You will feel a gentle stretch down the back of your leg. Hold this for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat 2 to 4 times for each leg.
No double leg lifts
You’ve heard that leg lifts really strengthen your core, and they do. But if your core is relatively weak, and you have back pain, lifting both legs at once puts tons of pressure on your core and can make your back pain worse. It’s better to do one leg at a time. Bend one knee and put the foot on the floor, keeping the other leg out straight on the floor. Now slowly lift the straight leg up about 6 inches and hold briefly. Repeat 10 times, and then switch legs.
Leave the chair and sit on the wall
Huh? Yes, sitting at a desk all day is hard, especially when you have strained a muscle in your lower back. Just getting out of the chair can make you feel like you’re about 92 years old. A wall sit is a great core strengthener. Stand 10 inches or so from the wall, then lean back until your back is flat against the wall. Slowly slide downward until your knees are bent as if you’re sitting, pressing your lower back into the wall. Hold this “sit” for a count of 10 and then slide back up to standing. Repeat up to 10 times as you’re able.
Be a bird dog
Start on your hands and knees. Tighten your stomach muscles and lift and extend one leg out behind you until it is straight out. Keep your hips level, just extending that leg. Hold it for 5 seconds and then go to the other leg. Do these 8 to 12 times. To make it even better, extend the opposite arm outward (see now you’re like a pointer dog) while your leg is extended.