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Five Life Changes to Reduce Back Pain: Stretching

As Physical Therapists, we commonly hear, “I have never been very flexible” from our patients and although this may be true, your flexibility may be a reflection on your lifestyle. As previously discussed, sitting has become the norm (not to mention a problem) for most of the population (Read Change II for Reducing Back Pain: Sitting). Prolonged, static posturing associated with sitting causes a loss of flexibility in specific muscle that directly influence our spine mechanics. While you may not be able to change the amount of time you spend sitting, incorporating a stretching program can reduce or even reverse tightness and immobility.

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Sitting houses tightness in our hamstrings, hip flexors, abdominals, and even specific neck muscles. Prolonged sitting has the same effect on these muscles as a sling would on your arm. Think about wearing a sling to immobilize your shoulder whenever you’re sitting. You can imagine how stiff your shoulder would become after years of immobilization. Short, tight muscles require your body to compensate and acclimate. The process of compensation happens unbeknownst to you and eventually leads to an injury with no known cause. A targeted stretching program can essentially restore flexibility and strain from other areas, including your low back.

First and foremost, you need to commit to safe and effective exercise to find value. As every minute becomes accounted for throughout the day it’s easy to ‘start tomorrow’ or ‘miss a few days’. A dedicated stretching and exercise program doesn’t need to derail your everyday flow. Targeting and specificity is key when in a time crunch. You’ll want to identify key areas and prioritize a list. If you’re unsure on where to start ask a Physical Therapist.

How Long Should I Hold a Stretch?

Once you identify specific tissues that require length and prioritize a list, you’ll need to know about hold times. Bandy et al determined that a 30-second hold time is necessary to effectively increase the length of a shortened muscle. This type of stretch is known as static stretching. Bandy et al also determined that performing five repetitions for 30-seconds once a day is just as effective as performing the same stretch two or three times a day.1 Therefore, stretching for 5-10 minutes a day is all that’s needed. We suggest using a timer or clock. The old, “1. 2. 3…. I forgot what I’m doing, 30” count isn’t advised.

When to Stretch

While static stretch is important, it must be performed at the right time. Static stretching works by lengthening the shortened fibers of our muscles. This lengthening process will decrease the contraction force, also known as strength, for 60-90 minutes post-stretch. For this reason, static stretching should be performed after a workout or sporting event2.

Prior to Exercise

So, if you shouldn’t perform static stretches prior to activities, what should you do? Dynamic stretching is the answer. Dynamic stretching mimics the actual sport or movement you are about to perform using quick, yet controlled, low intensity full body movements. Warming up a muscle through dynamic stretching has been shown to enhance performance while preventing muscle strains.

Typically the low back is the great compensator. Tightness in areas surrounding the low back is often the cause for injury. Stretching structures around the spine and adding spinal stability is often the foundation of a low back exercise program. To build your own individualized program contact a physical therapist.

To discuss the health of your spine with a physical therapist, click the link below to schedule your free discovery visit at Buffalo Rehab Group.

1. Bandy, William D., Jean M. Irion, and Michelle Briggler. “The effect of static stretch and dynamic range of motion training on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles.” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy
27.4 (1998): 295-300.
2. Little, Thomas, and Alun G. Williams. “Effects of differential stretching protocols during warm-ups on high-speed motor capacities in professional soccer players.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 20.1
(2006): 203-307.