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Back pain, especially low back pain, is one of the most common complaints we hear when people come to MOVE for training. It is a frustrating condition because moving around sometimes seems to cause more pain and our instincts can be to stop moving. Unfortunately, lack of movement is often at least partly to blame and can also make symptoms worsen over time. Factors that come with aging such as stiffness and the hormonal changes that come with menopause can also play a role. Luckily, depending on the cause of the pain, certain movements can help relieve chronic back pain and in many cases make it much less of an issue.  

What Causes Back Pain?

There are many causes of back pain. Often, it is a combination of your physical structure, which is sometimes thought of as posture, but really extends to the alignment of the entire skeleton, and your lifestyle. Sometimes, back pain is related to a trauma such as a fall or car accident.  Because these factors are unique to each person, the goal is to understand the underlying causes and create a program to address them. 

What are the factors causing back pain?

When looking for the cause of back pain, start by thinking about two things. First, think about lifestyle. What do you do all day? If your job requires long hours on your feet or sitting at a desk or in a car, this may be a contributing factor. Our body functions best when we move a lot. Sitting or standing still can bring compressive forces into the spine. Furthermore, stillness does not allow for optimal circulatory function. This compounds daily because our body starts to adapt to sitting all day and our anatomy actually changes in ways that might lead to back pain. 

spine anatomy

For example, if we sit for long periods of time, our muscles begin to adapt to that position.  Then, when we want to move around, it can cause pain and strain on muscles and joints. If you sit a lot but like to walk or work out, think about those activities. What is the muscular emphasis of that activity? If you are a runner, for example, and you sit at a desk for work, your quads and hip flexors can become tight and place some pressure and a type of “pulling” force onto your low back, increasing the curve of your spine and causing pain.  

The second area to think about is your own structure and posture. Many people say “I have bad posture” when we meet them. The goal is not to have perfect posture but to have a balanced, mobile and strong spine. As we introduce gentle movement into the body, curves of the spine become less extreme and optimal function can be restored. Very often, by bringing balanced movement into the spine you can mitigate pain and its underlying causes.

How to Get Rid of Back Pain

Healing back pain requires consistent focus and attention. It also requires dedicating the time needed to make lifestyles changes. There are no quick fixes for back pain. A mindful and consistent approach is best. You might need to experiment to find what works best for your body. Then, once you understand what helps ease the pain, you can tailor the suggestions below to work for your individual needs. MOVE trainers can help you with the movement and breath-work suggestions.

1. Visit Your Physician

First, see your physician first to rule out any other issue or pathology. You can also talk to them about pain relievers, and if they would be beneficial in helping your back pain. Be sure to receive clearance from your doctor before you introduce a new exercise practice. 

2. Visit a Specialist

Your physician might refer you to a physical medicine and rehab physician (also called a physiatrist or PM&R specialist) or suggest physical therapy. Find specialists who will communicate with your Pilates or Gyrotonic trainer to help articulate training goals and contraindications.

3. Mindful Breathing

It sounds simple but learning to breathe well can help back pain. Have your trainer teach you diaphragmatic breathing and how to use it to help organize the musculature of your trunk. An added benefit, this mindful breathing practice can also help calm the nervous system.

4. Move More

Bring more movement into your day and sit less.  Sitting brings compressive forces into the spine and places stress on your hips and legs.  By taking movement breaks throughout the day, you can stimulate the normal muscular organization of your spine, pelvis and legs and mitigate the stressor caused by sitting. Set a timer on your phone or smartwatch that tells you to get up a move every 30 minutes. Once the timer goes off, take one minute to walk a quick lap around your office or desk area.

5.  Back Exercises

It is important to strengthen the whole body to build a strong healthy back.  Doing the exercises listed below under the watchful eye of a trainer and then practicing these and other exercises tailored to your unique needs daily will build the lasting strength needed for a healthy back. 

6. Heating Pads and Warm Baths

Heating pads and warm baths can help relax the back muscles and reduce pain. Heat increases blood flow through out the body which aids in relaxing stiff muscle fibers. There is more support to use heat, as opposed to ice, for back pain, because muscle tightness tends at the root of pain and heat functions better at loosening muscles.

Stretches for Back Pain

The best stretches for back pain are gentle movements. Daily movement “vitamins” will support your body’s needs to bring more movement and strength into your day. Slow and steady wins the race here, so pay attention to your body, including what works and what doesn’t. Here are some stretches that can help alleviate back pain:

Exercise 1: Cat Stretch

STARTING POSITION

Begin kneeling on all fours. Arms underneath shoulders, and knees directly underneath hips, slightly apart. Spine is reaching long from tail to head.

pilates cat stretch

EXERCISE

Inhale to grow longer and find length through the spine. 

Exhale to use abdominals to round spine into a c-curve starting from the tail bone. The head is last to round.

Inhale to breathe into sides of rib cage, rounding deeper.

Exhale starting from the tail end of the spine, extend spine one vertebrae at a time back into starting position.

Notes: Maintain oblique activation to keep ribcage closed and lumbar spine from extending.

Exercise 2: Spinal Rotation

STARTING POSITION

Begin sitting in a chair or lying on your side, knees bent and pulled up towards hips. Arms are straight in front of you with palms together. A pillow can be used for head support.

trunk rotation in chair

EXERCISE

Inhale to lift top arm up towards the ceiling, following the arm with your gaze, keeping a long reach through the fingertips.

Exhale to continue to reach arm back behind you as your torso rotates and your chest opens up toward the ceiling, still maintaining gaze on the arm.

Reach fingertips longer towards the upper corner as you take a deep inhale. Exhale to relax into position and to open the chest a little more. Repeat inhale. Exhale and using abdominals, rotate back to starting position.

Repeat on other side.

Notes: Isolate rotation of torso. Legs stay in the same stacked position for the entire exercise.

Exercise 3: Hip Rolls

STARTING POSITION

Begin lying on back, knees bent and feet hip distance apart. Arms are long by your sides.

hip rolls

EXERCISE

Inhale to breathe into sides of rib cage and grow long through spine.

Exhale to recruit abdominals into an imprinted position of the pelvis and articulate spine from tail to roll up into a bridge position where wide shoulders support the weight. Hip joints are extended, knees are energetically reaching long over toes.

Inhale to stay and maintain a neutral spine.

Exhale and roll down to return to starting position. Think of reaching the sit bones toward the heels as you articulate down through spine.

Notes: Maintain oblique activation to keep rib cage closed and lumbar spine from extending when hips are lifted.

Learn More About Back Pain

Join us November 6th from 5:30pm-7pm for our Low Back Pain Event. Together we will explore the common causes, treatments, contraindications, and movement solutions for low back pain with local experts.

Author Bio

Elaine Economou is Co-Founder and CEO of MOVE Wellness and Program Director of the MOVE Pilates Instructor Training Program. Elaine holds a degree in movement and over twenty years of teaching experience. Elaine’s certifications include:

  • NPCP and STOTT certified Pilates Trainer
  • Licensed GYROTONIC® Expansion System Trainer in Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis
  • Wellcoaches trained Wellness Coach
  • Functional Aging Specialist
  • Other instructor training includes: TRX, Pilates for Osteoporosis, Pilates for Golfers, Total Barre, and Continuum Movement