If you have tight back muscles, you're far from alone: According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 80 percent of adults experience low-back problems at some point, and it's the leading cause of job-related disability and missed work days.
The causes of back pain and stiffness range from a sedentary lifestyle to injuries, accidents and age-related changes to the spine. Depending on the cause of your stiff back, remedies may include strengthening exercises, hot and cold therapy, strategic stretching exercises and a number of medical interventions.
Common causes of back pain include injuries, age-related changes to the spine, muscular imbalances and simple inactivity. Often "motion is lotion," with increased activity helping to remedy the discomfort, but depending on the cause, you might also need at-home therapies, such as icing and rest, or a doctor's intervention.
Back Sprains and Strains
If your back pain comes on suddenly and is localized, you may have a sprain or strain. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, these are the most common causes of low-back pain. Sprains and strains are often incurred while exercising, including weight lifting, especially from doing too much, too soon when you start a new exercise program.
Mild cases can often be treated at home and usually improve within a few weeks with appropriate care. Sutter Health offers some advice for caring for mild back strains and sprains at home:
- Rest and, in particular, skip any unnecessary bending or twisting.
- Apply ice every hour for the first few days, then switch to warm baths or alternating cold and heat.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications may help.
When you're able, start mild movement — which could mean walking, gentle stretching, or other very low-impact exercises that feel good — to help your back loosen up. As the saying goes, "motion is lotion."
Medical Conditions and Back Discomfort
Although mild sprains and strains usually resolve with appropriate at-home care, more serious sprains and strains may need a doctor's attention. And if your back pain and stiffness presents with other symptoms, it may indicate a more serious condition that warrants medical attention, from herniated discs to degenerative changes caused by arthritis or even cancer.
- Lack of appetite
- New bowel or bladder problems
- Sharp, stabbing pain
- If your pain is related to a fall, car accident, or other traumatic injury
Other reasons to contact a doctor include:
- Milder back pain doesn't resolve within a few weeks of at-home treatment.
- You fall into the middle-aged or elderly category, which elevates your risk of back pain from degenerative changes.
- Pain, numbness or tingling spreads down one or both of your legs.
- Your back pain is accompanied by unexplained weight loss.
Is It DOMS?
If you're feeling generalized stiffness in your back muscles in the day or two following a tough workout, you may be experiencing DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle soreness. DOMS usually fades within three to five days after your workout or, in extreme cases, after about seven days.
If you do have a stiff back because of delayed-onset muscle soreness, take it easy until the soreness has faded, then moderate your workout intensity to keep from getting that sore again. Some exercisers treat being massively sore as a badge of honor, but it's not necessary to make regular gains toward your fitness goals.
Back Pain From Sedentary Habits
If you spend a lot of time sitting at a computer, a desk or otherwise engaged in sedentary habits, that could be the cause of your stiff and tense back muscles. This causal relationship has been well documented through clinical trials and observation. For example, in a 2018 study published in BioMed Research International, researchers found that leading a sedentary lifestyle greatly increased the risks of participants having low-back pain.
Happily, the solution is a relatively simple one: Get up and move. Consider setting a timer or using a time-management app to ring every 30 minutes, signaling it's time to get up and stretch or at least move around the room. If you can, break up long chunks of desk time with longer breaks for activity, like walking down the hall to meet with colleagues, walking around the building during lunch or even holding walking meetings.
A review published in a 2016 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine comes to a similar conclusion, noting that exercising reduces the risk of low-back pain, and is especially effective when combined with appropriate patient education.
Exercises for a Stiff Back
No matter the cause of your stiff back, adding some gentle stretching and strengthening exercises to your daily routine will almost always help. Excellent examples that you can get away with doing in your office, or anywhere that you have a bit of floor space, include:
- Position yourself on your hands and knees.
- Arch your back up — think of tucking your belly button against your spine — to imitate the posture of any angry cat.
- Relax and let your belly button sink into a comfortable sway-backed position; this is the "cow" part of the exercise.
- Repeat 10 to 15 times, several times a day.
Seated Back Rotation
- While seated in a chair, cross your right leg gently over the left. Your right foot should point more or less down toward the floor, not off to the side.
- Twist toward the right, using gentle pressure from your left arm against the outside of your right leg to aid the motion.
- Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side. You can repeat this stretch two or three times at a sitting — or more, if it feels good.
Supine Back Stretches
- Lie down on the floor, using a yoga mat or towel for cushioning. Bend your knees and place both feet on the floor.
- Gently hug one knee at a time toward your chest, holding each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Bring both knees toward your chest and hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
You can also spread both arms out to the side (your upper body will form the shape of a "T") and let both knees fall gently to one side of your body, then the other. Hold the stretch on each side for at least 15 to 30 seconds.
If you have a herniated disc or other medical cause for your back pain, this sometimes changes which exercises are best for you. Your doctor can help you determine which exercises are — or aren't — safe for you to do.
Stretch Related Muscles
Your back muscles are just one part of the puzzle that keeps your pelvis aligned — so sometimes when the neighboring muscles in your thighs and hips are tight, your back muscles end up stiff or painful as a result. Any program for stretching and strengthening your back should also include, at a minimum, stretches for your hip flexors and hamstrings.
- Lie face-up in bed or on the floor, knees bent and feet flat on the bed/floor.
- Extend your right leg so it's straight at the knee, and gently lift it until it points straight up, or or close as you can get without bending the knee.
- Use your hands, a yoga strap, a belt or even a towel to gently apply pressure to the calf of that leg, drawing it toward your head until you feel mild tension in your hamstrings at the back of your thigh.
- Hold that stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Make sure you stretch the other leg as well.
Lunging Hip Stretch
- Kneel on a yoga mat or other cushion to protect your knees.
- Lift your left foot and plant it in front of you, knee bent at about 90 degrees. Your right knee stays on the floor.
- Gently press your hips forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your right hip. You might also feel a stretch down the front of your right thigh.
- If you don't feel a stretch, imagine tucking your buttocks under you or tilting your hips slightly back.
- Hold that stretch for 15 to 30 seconds before switching leg positions to stretch the other side.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Low Back Pain Fact Sheet
- Cleveland Clinic: When Is It OK to Push Through Pain During Exercise?
- BioMed Research International: Sedentary Lifestyle and Nonspecific Low Back Pain in Medical Personnel in North-East Poland
- Sutter Health: Is This Serious? Decoding Back Pain
- Mayo Clinic: Back Pain
- JAMA Internal Medicine: Prevention of Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
- Mayo Clinic: Back Exercises
- Spine-Health: 4 Reasons You May Have a Stiff Back
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons: Low Back Strain and Sprain