Regularly stretching the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support the spine is an important element of all back exercise programs. Stretches designed to alleviate neck and back pain are likely to be prescribed by a doctor, physical therapist, or spine specialist.

See Specialists Who Treat Back Pain

Benefits of stretching include:

  • Reducing tension in muscles supporting the spine; tension in these muscles can worsen pain from any number of back pain conditions
  • Improving range of motion and overall mobility
  • Reducing risk of disability caused by back pain

Pain that lasts longer than 3 months (chronic pain) may require weeks or months of regular stretching to successfully reduce pain. Stretches may be included as part of a physical therapy program, and/or recommended to be done at home on a daily basis.

See Types of Back Pain: Acute Pain, Chronic Pain, and Neuropathic Pain

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General Tips for Stretching to Relieve Back Pain

Keeping the following in mind can help effectively stretch the muscles without injury:

  • Wear comfortable clothing that won’t bind or constrict movements
  • Do not force the body into difficult or painful positions—stretching should be pain free
  • Move into a stretch slowly and avoid bouncing, which can cause muscle strain
  • Stretch on a clean, flat surface that is large enough to move freely
  • Hold stretches long enough (15 to 30 seconds) to adequately lengthen muscles and improve range of motion2
  • Repeat a stretch between 2 and 5 times—a muscle usually reaches maximum elongation after about 4 repetitions2
  • Stretch one side of the body at a time

Below are examples of stretches targeted for the neck, upper back, and the lower back.

Neck and Shoulder Stretches

Basic stretches for neck pain are convenient enough to be done on a regular basis throughout the day, such as at home, at work, or even in the car. Some examples include:

  • Flexion stretch—Chin to Chest. Gently bend the head forward, bringing the chin toward the chest until a stretch is felt in the back of the neck.
  • Lateral Flexion Stretch—Ear to Shoulder. Bend the neck to one side as if to touch the ear to the shoulder until a stretch is felt in the side of the neck. Keep the shoulders down and back in a comfortable but healthy posture.
  • Levator scapula stretch. Rest one arm against a wall or doorjamb with the elbow slightly above the shoulder, then turn the head to face the opposite direction. Bring the chin down toward the collarbone to feel a stretch in the back of the neck. It may be helpful to gently pull the head forward with the other hand to hold the stretch for the desired time.
  • Corner stretch. Stand facing the corner of a room, and place the forearms on each wall with the elbows around shoulder height. Then lean forward until a stretch is felt under the collarbone.

See Neck Stretches

Stretches that are not recommended include neck circles (where the head is repeatedly rolled around the neck) or quickly stretching the neck forward and backward or side to side. These stretches may cause muscles strain or place additional stress on the cervical spine.

See Cervical Spine Anatomy and Neck Pain

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Stretches for Low Back Pain

  • Back Flexion Stretch. Lying on the back, pull both knees to the chest while simultaneously flexing the head forward until a comfortable stretch is felt across the mid and low back.
  • Knee to Chest Stretch. Lie on the back with the knees bent and both heels on the floor, then place both hands behind one knee and pull it toward the chest, stretching the gluteus and piriformis muscles in the buttock.
  • Watch: Video: Single Knee to Chest SI Joint Stretch for Sciatic Pain Relief

  • Kneeling Lunge Stretch. Starting on both knees, move one leg forward so the foot is flat on the ground, keeping weight evenly distributed through both hips (rather than on one side or the other). Place both hands on the top of the thigh, and gently lean the body forward to feel a stretch in the front of the other leg. This stretch affects the hip flexor muscles, which attach to the pelvis and can impact posture if too tight.
  • Watch: Video: Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

  • Piriformis Muscle Stretch. Lie on the back with knees bent and both heels on the floor. Cross one leg over the other, resting the ankle on the bent knee, then gently pull the bottom knee toward the chest until a stretch is felt in the buttock. Or, lying on the floor, cross one leg over the other and pull it forward over the body at the knee, keeping the other leg flat.
  • Watch: Video: Supine Piriformis Muscle Stretch for Sciatic Pain Relief #3

The above are representative samples of the types of stretches commonly prescribed. Most stretches are adaptable to accommodate an individual’s flexibility and level of pain, and can be made easier by using a wall, door jamb, or chair for added stability during the stretch.

References:

  1. Page P. Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2012;7(1):109-119.
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