At some point or other, everyone experiences some sort of lower back pain or discomfort. And while these aches and pains are common, they can be debilitating and (definitely) shouldn't be ignored.
Your lower back is made up of five vertebrae, labeled L1 through L5, and your sacrum has five bones, labeled S1 through S5. Also known as your lumbosacral joint, your L5-S1 is the fifth vertebra of your lower back, which sits on top of the first bone in your sacrum. Long story short: Your L5-S1 is a joint in your lower back.
As with the other joints in your lumbar spine, your L5-S1 is subject to compression and strain, which can cause some uncomfortable side effects. Read on to learn some common causes of discomfort and a few lower back stretches that may offer some relief.
What Typically Causes Damage to Your L5-S1?
Like the other joints in your body, the joints in your lower back are subject to age-related cartilage loss, also known as osteoarthritis, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is a common, gradual condition that many people experience with age.
Although there's no cure for arthritis, there are interventions (like physical therapy and prescribed medications) that your doctor can recommend.
2. Herniated Disk
The disks in your spine are like rubbery cushions that sit between your vertebrae, per the Mayo Clinic. Also known as a slipped disk or ruptured disk, a herniated disk occurs when one of these disks is pushed out of place. These are most common in the lower back and can cause pain or numbness.
3. Joint Damage
The joints that make up your lower back (aka your facet joints) often experience a lot of stress and compression due to factors like poor posture and overuse, according to Houston Methodist. Over time, this can cause joint damage or cartilage loss, which often results in pain or discomfort.
4. Muscle Injury
In some cases, your lower back pain may not be actual damage to your lumbosacral joint but instead, the surrounding muscles, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Lifting an overly heavy weight can cause muscle pain or injury, but even just bending over to pick up a sock can cause a tweak in your lower back, especially if you have a weak core (more on that below).
Unfortunately, L5-S1 pain (and most lower back pain in general) doesn't usually heal itself, especially after a few weeks of consistent aches, according to David Wells-Roth, MD, a neurosurgeon who specializes minimally-invasive spinal surgery.
"If [your pain] remains persistent, it is probably not muscular, and you should see a specialist in order to figure out a solution and what is wrong, so you don’t create further injury," he says.
L5-S1 Exercises to Try
Before you try any exercises or stretches for your lower back, it's best to consult a medical professional. While these exercises are generally safe, in some cases, stretching can worsen a herniated disc, according to Dr. Wells-Roth.
"If you have a herniated disc and some of the disc is extruded out onto the nerve, you can extrude it even more from the pressure and ultimately make it worse," he says.
So, before you start stretching and moving, double-check that your doctor or physical therapist approves.
1. Basic Hamstring Stretch
- Sit in a chair with your feet planted flat on the floor.
- Come to the edge of the seat and extend your right leg in front of you with a gentle bend in your knee.
- Gently lean forward and reach your fingers toward your toes.
- Hold here for about 10 seconds and then switch sides.
Basic hamstring stretches (like touching your toes) can help decrease the tension across your lower back, according to Dr. Wells-Roth. If you can't reach your toes, that's OK! You can reach for your knee or shin, depending on your flexibility.
2. Knee-to-Chest Stretch
- Lie on the ground with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent.
- With your right foot planted, gently pull your left knee toward your chest until you feel a stretch in your lower back.
- Pause here for a few breaths and then switch sides.
If lying on the floor feels uncomfortable, you can place a pillow or mat under your back. And for those who have trouble getting up off the ground, perform the exercise near a couch or sturdy chair to help with your balance. Or, you can do this move in your bed.
3. Standing Hurdler Stretch
- Place your left foot on a bench or couch.
- Keeping both legs straight and your hips square to the front, slowly bend from your waist to feel a stretch in your left hamstring.
- Breathe and switch sides.
You can also do this stretch seated, keeping one knee bent and the other leg straight out in front of you. "You should feel this stretch in your glutes and also in your opposite groin and adductors," Dr. Wells-Roth says.
3 More Things You Can Do to Relieve L5-S1 Pain
1. Strengthen Your Core
Strengthening your core is one thing that can help alleviate lower back pain, according to Dr. Wells-Roth. But that doesn't mean you should focus on six-pack muscles.
Your core is a group of deep muscles around your trunk that support your spine and pelvis, including your lumbosacral joint. So, a stronger core means more support and protection for the sensitive joints in your lower back. Plus, a stronger core can help improve your posture, which is another common cause of lower-back discomfort.
2. Exercise Regularly
So long as you're not in pain, exercising regularly can help alleviate lower back pain, according to Dr. Wells-Roth.
In general, maintaining a healthy body weight can help take a lot of pressure off your lower back and minimize pain, he says. But of course, this specific measure looks different from person to person. So, consult your doctor to learn more about your specific goals and body's needs.
3. Listen to Your Body
It may sound obvious, but it's important to listen to your body's pain signals. Lower back pain shouldn't be taken lightly, especially if you've been experiencing pain for two weeks or longer.
If you feel prolonged discomfort, ease off your exercise routine and talk to a doctor. "It is important to properly stretch daily and get adequate exercise, such as taking long walks, other forms of low impact cardio and strengthening your core," Dr. Wells-Roth says. "However, if the L5-S1 is injured, it is never going to fully get better and this will all simply relieve pain, not solve the issue."