Tingling, weakness, pain, burning, "pins and needles" and even spots of numbness in your legs and feet might be symptoms of a pinched nerve in your low back. If this sounds like you, stretching exercises might help — but depending on the specifics of your condition, they might worsen your symptoms.
Talk to a Doctor First
Hold on there — it's not quite time to stretch yet. If you're experiencing the symptoms of a pinched nerve, it's very important that you speak to a doctor before undertaking any exercises or stretches for a pinched nerve in the lower back.
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There are two reasons for that. The first is that while pinched nerves can cause the symptoms already listed, your doctor can help you figure out whether there's anything else behind the pain and discomfort. She'll also find out whether you need any additional treatments, including anti-inflammatory meds or pain relievers, or even more serious interventions such as steroids or even surgery in extreme cases.
Second, depending on the specifics of how your nerve is being put under pressure, certain positions might actually worsen your condition. For example, if your pinched nerve is caused by a herniated disk, the direction in which that disk has "slipped" can determine which movements help you and which make it worse.
Can you work out with a pinched nerve? Maybe — but again, which movements help and which movements hurt depend on the specifics of your nerve problem. A doctor will help you determine the exercises that are safe and beneficial for you.
Lower Back Stretches
These stretches are examples of the exercises doctors sometimes prescribe to treat a pinched nerve. You don't have to have a pinched nerve to do these stretches; the Mayo Clinic emphasizes the importance of stretching as a component of fitness for everybody, and recommends holding each stretch for around 30 seconds.
It's usually a good idea — and feels great — to repeat each stretch several times.
Move 1: Knees to Chest
Harvard Health Publishing recommends this gentle stretch as a possible antidote to sciatica — which is one of the ways in which a pinched nerve may manifest.
- Lie on your back on the floor or in bed, with both knees bent and feet flat on the bed or floor.
- Pull one knee in toward your chest; you may feel a gentle stretch in your lower back as you hold this position.
- Release that leg and pull the other one in toward your chest.
- Last, pull both legs in toward your chest.
Move 2: Gentle Cobra
This very gentle version of the cobra yoga pose stretches your back in the other direction.
- Lie on your stomach on a yoga mat or similar surface.
- Keep your hips and legs relaxed and in contact with the mat as you gently prop your upper body up on your elbows until you feel a gentle stretch in your abdomen.
Move 3: Pelvic Tilt
Part stretch and part exercise, this movement helps stabilize your hips and lower back.
- Lie on your back, knees bent and flat on the floor.
- Squeeze your stomach muscles to tilt your pelvis and flatten your lower back against the floor.
This isn't the type of stretch or exercise you'll hold for 30 seconds. Instead, work up to holding this position for 10 seconds at a time, and aim for at least five to 10 repetitions.
Other Helpful Stretches
Tight hamstrings and tight hip flexors can both pull your pelvis out of alignment, which in turn affects your lower back. If your doctor determines that this tightness is contributing to your pinched nerve, he might recommend one or more stretches:
Move 1: Hamstring Stretch
- Lie on the floor, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Straighten your right leg and slowly bring it toward your body. Keep your leg straight, even if that means you can't get it very close to you. You can use gentle tension on your leg to bring it closer until you feel a gentle stretch down the back of your thigh.
- Do a body check: Is your right knee still straight, and are both sides of your hips still on the floor? If not, adjust.
Repeat on the other side.
Move 2: Hip Flexor Stretch
- Lie on your back at the edge of a bed, with your hips entirely on the mattress but your legs hanging over the edge. For an extra stretch, place a folded towel beneath your hips to elevate them.
- Gently hug your right leg to your chest. At the same time, let your left leg relax and hang down off the bed. You should feel a gentle stretch down the front of your left hip.
Repeat on the other side.
Read more: The 8 Best Stretches for Your Legs
Move 3: Piriformis Stretch
A slipped disc isn't the only way you might get a pinched nerve in your lower body. As MedlinePlus explains, a tight piriformis muscle — which sits deep in your glutes — can compress your sciatic nerve. However, it's fairly easy to stretch your pirifomis.
- Lie on your back, both knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee.
- Gently pull your left thigh toward you, bringing your right leg along with it. Keep your right knee pointing out to the side, not at your chest.
- Stop and hold the stretch when you feel mild tension in your glutes.
Repeat on the other side.
Move 4: Gentle Hip Stretch
Here's an even gentler stretch to target your piriformis and loosen your hips.
- Sit on the floor with both legs straight out in front of you.
- Bend your left knee and cross it over your right leg. Your left foot should touch the floor, and your left knee will point up. Gently pull your left foot as close to your hip as is comfortable.
- Place your right arm across the outside of your left thigh (your torso will twist to the left). Apply gentle pressure against your thigh until you feel a stretch it in the outside of your hip. You might also feel a stretch down your right side.
As always with one-sided exercises, repeat this on the other side.
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Pinched Nerve"
- University Health Services Tang Center: "Low Back Pain"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Sciatica: Of All the Nerve"
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Pinched Nerve Information Page"
- Mayo Clinic: "Stretching and Flexibility"
- MedlinePlus: "Piriformis Syndrome"
- ExRx.net: "Lying Piriformis Stretch"