About 80 percent of adults experience low-back pain at some point, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. So if you're hurting, you're definitely not alone — even if that's small comfort in the moment. Taking action with a few appropriate exercises and stretches for lower-back pain can be very effective. A review article published in 2016 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that exercise is effective in reducing low-back pain, especially when paired with appropriate patient education.
Stretches for Lower-Back Spasms
If your lower-back muscles spasm, your first goal should be to stop whatever you think caused the spasm and give the muscles a chance to relax. Cramped or spasmed muscles may feel hard to the touch. They lack their usual elasticity, so be gentle. Hold the muscle in a gentle stretch until the spasm passes. If you have a friend nearby, you can ask him to gently massage your back as well to help the cramp pass.
If you're on your own, a simple knees-to-chest stretch is an easy way of stretching your back muscles. Lie flat on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Gently bring one leg at a time toward your chest. If you're flexible enough, hug your knee to your chest until you feel a very gentle stretch on the spasming muscle. If you can't reach, loop a belt, a yoga strap, a towel or a piece of clothing around your shin and use it to gently pull your knee toward your chest.
Hold the stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds — ideally more — and take deep, slow breaths to help your body relax. Make sure you stretch the other side, too. If it's more comfortable, you can bring both knees toward your chest at once.
A Gentle Child's Pose
If you can't or don't want to lie on your back, you have more gentle exercises for back spasms to choose from. Once the spasm has passed, kneel on the floor or a yoga mat and sit back on your heels. Bend down until your torso touches your thighs and either stretch your hands in front of you, palms down, or place them alongside you, hands near your feet and palms facing up.
A Stability Ball Stretch
If you have access to an exercise ball or stability ball, you can also use it for a gentle back stretch. Simply drape yourself face down over the ball and take a few deep breaths, relaxing as you feel gravity pull you into a gentle stretch. As you might imagine, these large, air-filled balls have a tendency to roll, so if you want extra stability, you can pin the ball between two chairs.
Gentle Twists for Your Back
This gentle stretch can offer relief for tight muscles along your flanks. Sit in a chair and cross your right leg over the left with your right foot pointing down toward the floor (instead of off to the side).
Turn your body gently toward the right. Drape your left arm over the outside of your right leg and apply mild pressure until you feel a gentle stretch in your back. Hold that stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, then repeat it on the other side.
Thigh and Hip Stretches
Have you ever heard the children's song that says, "thigh bone connected to the hip bone, hip bone connected to the back bone," and so on? That interconnectedness is particularly true of your hips, thighs and lower back, so developing flexibility in your hips and thighs may help prevent further spasms in your back. You can try doing quadriceps and hamstring stretches while you're lying in bed.
To perform a quadriceps stretch:
- Roll over onto one side. You can use a pillow or your lower arm to support your neck.
- Bend the knee of your upper leg. Reach back with your uppermost hand and grasp the foot, ankle or shin of that bent leg.
- Keep your lower leg straight and your knees together as you gently draw the foot of your bent leg toward your buttock on that side. Press your hip on that side gently forward, too, until you feel a stretch in the front of your thigh and your hip.
- Hold the stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds, and be sure to repeat it on the other side.
To perform a hamstring stretch:
- Lie flat on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor/bed.
- Extend one leg straight overhead, or as close to overhead as you can get; it's more important that the leg is straight than for it to point straight up.
- Grasp the calf of that raised leg and gently pull it back toward you until you feel a stretch in your hamstring (the muscles in the back of your thigh).
- Hold the stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
If you can't reach your calf, loop a towel, yoga strap or belt around your leg and use that to apply gentle pressure.
Why Movement Matters
Although these stretches can feel good in the moment, if you suffer from frequent back pain, you should strive to make them a continuous part of your life, along with gentle strengthening exercises to help stabilize your core. In particular, make it a habit to warm up and stretch before you exercise, then cool down and stretch when you're done.
Inactive muscles are stiff, weak muscles, and the relationship between a sedentary lifestyle and back pain has been well documented. In a study published in 2018 in the journal BioMed Research International, researchers found that for their subjects — medical personnel in Poland — a sedentary lifestyle greatly increased their risk of low-back pain. Other noteworthy risk factors included smoking and excessive coffee consumption.
When to See a Doctor
Muscle cramps and spasms can happen to anyone in any muscle that you consciously control. Muscle fatigue, working out in the heat, dehydration and not properly warming up before you exercise are all common causes. Some medications may also predispose you to muscle spasms and cramps.
With that said, if your back spasms are frequent and severe, if they don't respond to stretching and exercise, if they're not clearly connected to a common cause (such as fatigue or improper lifting technique), or if you think they were caused by a fall or other traumatic injury, you should see a doctor for further treatment. Your doctor can also rule out any other medical conditions that might be responsible for your discomfort.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Low Back Pain Fact Sheet
- JAMA Network Journals: JAMA Internal Medicine: Prevention of Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
- BioMed Research International: Sedentary Lifestyle and Nonspecific Low Back Pain in Medical Personnel in North-East Poland
- American Osteopathic Association: Coping With Muscle Cramps: Why You Don't Have to Live With This Common Pain
- Mayo Clinic: Muscle Cramp
- Mayo Clinic: Back Pain
- Mayo Clinic: Slide Show: Back Exercises in 15 Minutes a Day