Stretching for low back pain a waste of time?

Is stretching for low back pain a waste of time?  As an Edinburgh osteopath for nearly 30 years I should know.  I’ve  also written two books on low back pain, so I know a thing or two about backs.

What is stretching for low back pain?

Stretching is where you take a joint and it’s related muscles/tendons and stretch it to its limit.  The limit may be defined by how much the muscle can lengthen.  Or it could be limited by some restriction in the joint itself.  This will certainly be the case if the joint is significantly inflamed.  So, it’s worth knowing first what might be limiting your range of motion.

Why would you want to be stretching for low back pain?

Many people feel that they are “stiff” when they have low back pain.  That they can’t move as far as they should be able to.  And so they have the feeling that they want to stretch.  Can you relate to that? However, when we look at their range of motion it’s really not that bad.  So the sensation of being stiff (lacking range of motion), is misleading.  Does this mean stretching for low back pain is a waste of time?  Maybe.

What if your range of motion really is limited?  Surely this would be the time to stretch?  Maybe, maybe not.  If the limitation is due to inflammation in the joint, you can irritate it by stretching.  But you might not know it at the time.  Remember the “Use it or Lose it, But Don’t Abuse it” rule?  Stretching an inflamed joint can lead to more inflammation.  This takes hours to build up, so it might not be more sore until the next day.  Oops.

It could be that your muscles are tense in order to protect you.  Some joints are relatively loose compared with their neighbours.  We call this instability.  This results in muscle tension, which you may feel as stiffness. If you stretch these joints, again, you’ll probably irritate them.  Bad idea.

So is stretching for low back pain a waste of time?

Sometimes it’s worse than a waste of time.  It can actually stop you from getting better, by aggravating your problem.  Sometimes it’s just a waste of time. But quite often you’ll feel better for stretching with low back pain.  Why?  Here’s where I get to geek-out!

Why does stretching for low back pain feel good?

When you stretch you cause little nerves to send messages to your spinal cord.  These nerves are called mechanoreceptors – they respond to stretch and pressure.  When this message reaches the spinal cord it can block messages coming in from nociceptors.  Nociceptors are popularly known as pain nerves.  (I won’t go into the technicalities of this, but there are no such thing as pain nerves – just nociceptors). So stretching stimulates mechanoreceptors which cancels out the pain pathways – in the very short-term. That’s why you might feel better for stretching.  Not because you’ve improved your range of motion.  And not because you’ve “loosened” your muscles or joints.  In fact if you’re really set on increasing your flexibility, go to Ballet school and spend hours every day stretching.  Then you might have a chance.  But bear in mind a lot of ballet dancers end up with low back pain! 🙁

Or, if you want a professional to help you, who specialises in low back pain, you can book an in-person or online consultation here.


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