Isn’t your back a finicky creature?

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Too much standing? Back pain. Back pain. Ouch. A long day of meetings? Ack! My back!

Finding the perfect balance between too much activity and too little can be difficult. When you cross that line, your back will tell you.

You may be tempted, when your lower back is screaming for relief, to go to bed and wait. Physical therapist Patti Kopasakis DPT says that this is not the best option.

Dr. Kopasakis explains that when you have lower back discomfort, your first instinct might be to rest. But this only adds to the stiffness. “Gentle movements can help work out the kinks.” Listen to your body, and don’t push through pain.

Dr. Kopasakis explains some of the best exercises to relieve lower back pain.

Stretches and exercises to relieve lower back pain

The best way to treat lower back pain depends on a number of factors.

Talk to your doctor if you have pain that is caused by trauma, such as a fall or accident, before trying to stretch yourself. Back pain that is accompanied by a cough, nausea or other signs of sickness should be treated the same way.

If your pain is caused by a long day in an uncomfortable chair, or from doing too much housework or yardwork you may benefit from some light stretching and exercise.

Dr. Kopasakis suggests that you listen to your body’s feedback. “If you feel worse, it’s a sign to stop.”

Observe how different movements affect you. If you’re still experiencing pain after extending forward, try extending your back instead. And vice versa, if you don’t like to lift your chest and arch your back, try some forward bending movements.

She says that the ultimate goal is to have good movement in every direction without pain. It may take some trial and error and time to find out what works for you.

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Start with your breath

Your breath can help you create more space in your body. This can make your exercises and stretches more effective. This is because breathing signals to your nervous system that you are not in a dangerous environment and can slow down its pace.

Dr. Kopasakis explains that when you feel back pain, your muscles tend to tense up and make movement difficult. “Your brain interprets pain signals and will limit movement.”

This can make you want not to move. This can lead to stiffness and more pain. It’s a vicious circle.

When your body is in sympathetic (fight or flight) mode, it can be difficult to distinguish between hurt and harm. Your body interprets the pain (hurt), as a threat to all-out harm. Not all pain is a sign that there’s a real problem.

Dr. Kopasakis clarifies that there is a difference between feeling some pain and having an injury. “People may fear that pain is synonymous with structural damage. You may not be experiencing any pain unless there is an inciting event such as an accident or illness. Your brain will often send you signals that something is wrong. Not that you have actually been injured.”

Dr. Kopasakis recommends that you calm your nervous system by using deep breathing techniques before exercising or stretching out your lower back.

Focus on taking nice, long exhalations and inhalations. Relax your abs, and your back.

She says that deep breathing can help calm the nervous system and allow you to move more freely.

Try these stretches and exercise when your body is ready. Listen to your body again and push until you feel a stretch. Stop any movements that aggravate your pain.

1. Rotation of the trunk lying down

You can do this twist by lying on your stomach. Choose a surface that is comfortable for you.

  1. Your feet should be flat on the ground. Your knees should touch, or be as close as possible to touching.
  2. Slowly and gently move your knees in one direction. Keep your shoulders and upper spine pinned down. You should feel a slight stretch on the opposite side of your knees.
  3. Hold for 5-10 seconds when you feel the stretch.
  4. Bring your knees gently back to the center. Then, lower your knees to the other side.
  5. Repeat three to five times on each side, or however you feel comfortable.

2. Supported cat-cow

The cat-cow pose can help to increase flexibility in your spine. It’s usually done on hands and knees in a tabletop pose. This modification can provide similar benefits, but with less strain to your aching back.

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  1. Place both hands flat on the counter, desk, or tabletop. Keep your arms straight and at your elbows.
  2. As you round your back gently, bring your hand toward your chest.
  3. Drop your chest and pull your shoulders back towards each other. Move your head up to look upwards (cow).
  4. Slowly move through the cat and cow three or five times, while moving very gently.

3. Side bend

This standing stretch targets your sides and back. If you have trouble keeping your balance, try holding onto a table or counter with one hand as you stretch on the other side.

  1. Stand with your arms straight above your head.
  2. Plant your feet firmly on the ground about hip-width distance apart.
  3. Stretch your arms, upper body and shoulders to one side. Stretching your hips should be done with straight hips, not bending them or lifting them.
  4. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds.
  5. Return to the center
  6. Repeat the process on the other side.
  7. Stretch each side 3 to 5 times.

4. Bridge

Bridge pose is an excellent stretch to help you get your spine in a neutral position. It also helps to work your glutes to relieve pain in your lower back. Start this stretch on the floor if it is safe and comfortable. Try it in bed, if you find that easier.

  1. Keep your knees about hip-width apart. Keep your legs about hip width apart. Place your arms on the sides of your body.
  2. Lift your hips using your buttocks. Ease into it. Do not rush to lift too high or too fast. Lift until you feel the stretch.
  3. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds, then lower yourself back down.
  4. Rest for 3 to 5 seconds and repeat about 5 times.

5. Standing child’s Pose

Child’s pose, like cat-cow is usually done on the ground. A modified version is done on a counter or other higher surface, which is gentler on a aching back.

  1. Place both hands flat on the counter, tabletop or desk, keeping your elbows straight.
  2. Step your feet backwards, keeping them about hip-width distance apart.
  3. Hinge at your hips, moving your backside back. Keep your back flat. From your hands to your tailbone, there should be a straight line. Relax your neck.
  4. Hold this stretch between 5 and 10 seconds.

6. Traditional child’s pose

The traditional child’s position can also help to loosen your back if your body allows.

  1. Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop or bed position.
  2. Spread your legs wide and touch your big toes together.
  3. Your bottom should rest on your heels. Your hands and arms should be on the surface beneath you, on either sides of your head.
  4. Hold the pose from 10 to 30 sec.

7. Walk

Dr. Kopasakis says that walking can help you work out the kinks in your lower back, but there are some precautions to be taken.

The distance and frequency of walking to relieve back pain depends on your level of activity and how well your body tolerates the exercise. Start with a small distance and work your way up. This may mean walking two houses down your street and then coming back. If you feel fine, walk two houses in the opposite direction. It’s important not to go too far away from your home base. Remember that the further you walk in one direction, you will have to walk back.

While it’s easy for you to stop exercising or stretching when you feel tension, you can’t stop walking the moment you feel uncomfortable.

“If you feel discomfort while walking, don’t just push through. Take a deep breath and stop. Dr. Kopasakis suggests that you relax your muscles. Sometimes, people don’t realise how tightly they are holding their bodies — how much they are guarding — until after they take a deep breath and make a real effort to relax. They may then realize that they were holding a lot tension in that area . I now have a new space in which to move.

When to seek professional advice

If your back pain is caused by a fall, or another traumatic event, you should speak to a healthcare professional rather than trying to do it yourself. Your provider will want you to rule out any more serious harm before advising on the best way to relieve pain.

Consult a physical therapist if these or other exercises don’t work for you. They can customize a program for your goals and needs.

Contact a provider as well if you experience symptoms of nerve damage such as tingling, weakness, or pain that radiates along one or both legs.