A healthy back depends on proper alignment -- and not just of the spine, which alone is comprised of 26 bones, including 24 separate vertebrae that are meticulously buffered with cartilage. The sacrum and coccyx (tailbone) also come into play, as well as the scapulae above and the pelvis below. With so many moving parts, it's no wonder that the whole apparatus can fall into misalignment, causing pain, numbness and loss of mobility. Fortunately, most people can restore or improve their skeletal alignment by stretching and strengthening key muscles.
Causes of Misalignment
Genetics, injury, arthritis, age and gravity may all conspire to throw your back out of alignment. Some muscles in the back become too tight, while others are slack with weakness. A well-aligned spine's natural S-shaped curve is part of its evolutionary shock-absorption system. If you spend too much time at a desk or behind the wheel as many people do, your pectoral muscles can become too tight while the upper back muscles grow weak, distorting the proper form of that curvature and causing a forward slump. Meanwhile, too tight hamstrings and knotted hip flexor muscles can throw the pelvis out of alignment, leading to lower back pain. Arthritis, too, can take its toll. Each of these situations can benefit greatly from stretching.
You may feel the tightest in your neck area, but tight neck muscles have a way of affecting your back all the way down to the bottom of the spine (and vice verse). The chin tuck is an easy and effective way to start taming some of those cervical muscles. You can do it sitting or standing but either way it's important to keep your spine erect. Now gently pull your chin back toward the top of your spinal column – like a turtle pulling his head back into his shell. Start with one set of 10 and work your way up to two or three sets several times a day.
Shoulder squeezes, or scapular retractions, help you stand up straighter by releasing tightness between the shoulder blades. They also improve mobility, particularly in your neck and upper back. To do them, simply pull your elbows behind you and retract your shoulder blades as if you're trying to make them touch, maintaining the squeeze for 5 seconds. Do this 10 to 20 times several times a day.
Hamstrings are the three large muscles that extend from the pelvis to below the knee. Technically, they're not back muscles but when they're too tight your lower back is probably going to hear about it. That's because they can pull the pelvis out of alignment. The Supine Hamstring Stretch is straight and to the point, and the Modified Hurdler's Stretch is a good thing to have in your wheelhouse too. Just be sure to warm up hamstrings for 5 to 7 minutes with light activity, such as brisk walking, before you stretch.
Of course, anyone dealing with back alignment issues has probably considered taking up yoga -- and rightly so. Many if not most physical therapy exercises are derived from yoga, and a well-rounded yoga practice can do wonders for back alignment. Backbends, such as Cobra and Upward Facing Dog pose, restore mobility to the vertebrae and loosen up the lumbar spine. And that old standby Downward-Facing Dog stretches the hamstrings, aligns the pelvis and pulls on the erector spinae muscles that flank either side of the spine.