Why Stretching Your Lower Back is a Bad Idea
Many people assume that stretching and adding flexibility to their lower back is beneficial, and that it will resolve their pain or tightness. I frequently see people bent over with a rounded back, straining to touch their toes in an attempt to alleviate a perceived back issue. When asked “why?”, most people tell me, a. their back is tight and needs to get loosened up, b. their back hurts and it feels good, or c. they really don’t know.
Here’s a short explanation of why that and related stretches are a bad idea.
Your lumbar spine is a series of stable vertebrae designed to bear load and transmit force. These vertebrae are slightly mobile to allow for a margin of safety and avoid destruction, but are at their strongest when they are held together in alignment. Think for a second about an extremely tall building that is designed with a bit of “give” to allow for wind, earthquakes and other natural occurrences. If it were made of cement and it cracked in the middle, the results would be catastrophic. Instead, they can sway slightly from side to side. The spine is similar, in that can be subjected to a fair amount of force before is completely destroyed. However, just as with a building, it is strongest and most resilient when it is locked into position.
Continuing the metaphor, if your spine is intended to be a structural pillar of support with a small amount of give, then the intricate array of muscles around your core act like a series of guy-wires, assisting the spine to stay strong and tall. When one side of the pillar is impacted or deformed, the guy wires act to get it back into place.
When you stretch those guy wires, you are reducing the tension that they are able to create and the amount of support they are able to provide. When they are stretched too much, or too violently, it results in instability, pulled muscles, herniated disks, fractures, etc.
So when you stretch out your low back, you are doing much more harm than good. Then why does it feel good? Generally speaking, it feels good because you activating stretch receptors that send a signal to your brain that can be perceived as good or even helpful. However, in reality, you may be ensuring that you will remain in pain until the stretching is stopped.
So what should you do instead? First of all, I’m not a doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist, so you might want to go see one of them first to find out the root of the problem. But, in general, you are going to want to look up or downstream of the issue you are experiencing. Often, other areas are to blame for the symptoms of low back pain. Tight hips, poor posture, glutes that are “turned off”, etc can all be to blame for the pain that has manifested itself in your back.
What should you take away from all of this? Don’t treat your spine like a mobile joint. It should be a rigid conductor of force. Try and think about keeping a rock solid spine and core throughout the day whenever you sit, stretch, lift or move. Stretching your low back isn’t nearly the solution that many people think that it is and can often do more harm than good. Doing something because it feels good in the moment can be a dangerous habit.