When we have back pain or a feeling of a tight back, our first reaction is to stretch the area that feels tight.
While stretching the back is often prescribed to help alleviate your back pain and tightness, sometimes stretching the back leads to more pain and discomfort.
Why would stretching lead to more pain and discomfort?
You Don't Need to (and Shouldn’t) Stretch!
Sometimes the reason your back is in pain, or the muscles of the back feel tight, is because you actually move your back too much.
The lumbar spine, or low back, is meant to be stable, meaning there shouldn't be a lot of excess motion occurring there. Unfortunately though, the low back becomes the point of motion for many with back pain.
When you end up moving at the lumbar spine during daily activities, as well as with exercise, this creates an unstable segment and leads to pain. As physical therapist and movement therapy specialist, Shirley Sahrman, has taught for many years, when there is too much motion at the lumbar spine, "further stress forces are imposed on the joint and surrounding tissues, thus there is susceptibility for a movement impairment syndrome to occur."
One way you can check to see your level of stability is to perform the birddog exercise. From an all fours position (quadruped position) try reaching out your opposite hand and leg. If you feel (or if you can see in a mirror) that your hip rotates or drops you likely move too easily through your lumbar spine.
So if the pain is being caused by excessive motion, creating more motion by stretching the back is likely going to further aggravate the back.
You're Not Stretching Your Hips
Many times back pain and tightness is the product of tight and stiff hips, thus forcing excess movement at the lumbar spine.
Because you feel the pain and tightness in the back you naturally focus on stretching the back when you may actually be focusing on stretching the hips. A physical therapist may help you determine if you have hip resistance that's causing your back pain.
For example, instead of lying on your back with one of your knees bent and then letting that leg fall across the body to stretch the lower back, you should instead try a hip flexor stretch to ensure adequate range of motion for the the hips.
Start in a half kneeling position with one knee on the floor and the other knee up so that both knees are at 90 degrees. Keep your abs engaged and squeeze the glute of the down leg as you push your hips forward slightly. Don't allow the low back to arch throughout the stretch, and you should be feeling the stretch in the front of the hip only.
You're Pushing the Stretch Too Far
Oftentimes, you might fall into the trap of thinking more is better when it comes to stretching.
Pushing the stretch farther and farther does not mean that the stretch will work to a greater degree. In fact, when you push the stretch too far you are likely to experience negative consequences.
When you over stretch, especially if the tissue is already aggravated or not conditioned well enough, you are at risk of causing micro trauma and straining the muscle.
Even if you don't experience structural damage, muscles have stretch receptors within them that provide feedback to the body. When a muscle is stretched too far past its current capacity the stretch receptors send a signal of “danger” back to the body. This signal results in the muscle creating protective contractions so it cannot stretch any farther.
When the muscle is in this protective state, you experience tightening, discomfort and possibly pain depending on the degree of the response.