In addition to conditioning, a good exercise regimen must include flexibility. Keeping the muscles and other tissues around your spine limber is very important. The following stretching exercises involve the muscles and tissues around your spine and those around your pelvis and legs that indirectly affect your spine's flexibility. Remember the correct technique when performing any stretch: Stretch the tissues only to the point of mild tension, hold the stretch without bouncing for at least ten seconds, and then, let the muscle totally relax. To receive the maximum benefit from a stretch, repeat it at least three to five times. Remember also that your muscles tend to return to their shortened position after you stretch them. So stretch several times throughout the day.
Start With the Hips
The hip stretch is a good starting exercise. It stretches the muscles around the hips and buttocks and on the side of your low back. Lie on your back with both legs outstretched. Grasp behind your left thigh, and gently pull your left leg, with the knee relaxed, toward your right shoulder until you feel a mild, comfortable stretch. Let your arms do the majority of the work, pulling the thigh toward the opposite shoulder. Your leg should be totally relaxed. Try to breathe comfortably; resist the tendency to hold your breath. At the end of the stretch, relax the muscles by allowing your left thigh to move back to the starting position on the floor. Perform the stretch the same way with the right leg. Alternate legs, and continue until each leg has been stretched at least three times.
Stretch Your Hamstring
The hamstring stretch exercises the muscles on the back side of your thighs. The hamstring muscles affect your ability to bend forward; when tight, they can make it hard to tie your shoes or pick up objects off the ground. Tight hamstrings also increase the pressure on your low back when you bend. So when these muscles are not stretched out to adequate lengths, your back suffers the consequences. If you sit most of the day, this stretch is particularly important, because the hamstring muscles become shorter when they are kept in the contracted, seated position for long periods. By stretching these muscles daily, you will find that your back can perform a lot more work without as much discomfort.
Lie down on your back next to a doorway with your left leg outstretched on the floor, your right hip next to the doorjamb, your right knee bent, and your right leg going up the door facing. If you are positioned correctly, your right buttock should be touching the door facing. Keeping your right knee bent, place the heel of your right foot on the door facing. Gently press your right thigh toward the facing, straightening your right knee until you feel a mild stretch in the back of your right thigh. Hold this position for at least ten seconds. If you feel the stretch behind your knee rather than in your thigh, your calf muscles may be tight; they should be stretched before you continue to stretch your hamstring. Repeat the exercise with the left leg. Alternate legs and continue until each leg has been stretched three times.
Flex Your Hip Flexors
You have probably never even heard of hip flexors, let alone know where they are, but this group of muscles is very important to the health of your back. The hip flexors are the muscles that work together to lift your thighs as you walk. When you pick up your leg to take a step, you are actually giving the signal to the hip flexors to contract -- thus, pulling your thigh and picking up your leg.
What does this have to do with your back? When you sit a lot, these muscles, like your hamstring muscles, tend to shorten, and then when you stand, they tilt your pelvis forward. Your pelvis, in turn, pulls on your low back and drastically increases the amount of curve in your spine in much the same way that high-heeled shoes can. This excessive curve forces the facet joints together, causing pain. If you keep your hip flexors stretched and limber, they will return to the proper length, and they won't tug on your low back.
To stretch the hip flexors, kneel down on your left knee. (Put your knee on a thick pillow so that it does not press too hard into the floor.) Put a chair or other support next to you for balance. Holding the support, put your right leg out in front of you so that your right knee is almost straight and your toes are pointed straight ahead. Keeping your upper body upright, gently allow your body weight to shift forward, bending your right knee, until you feel a mild stretch on the front part of your left hip. Hold this for at least ten seconds. Relax and repeat the stretch with the opposite leg and hip. Remember that you may want to do this stretch several times during the course of the day, because the hip flexors, like your other muscles, tend to return to their shortened position over time.
Try a Press-Up
Many of the activities of everyday life reduce the amount of normal inward curve in your low back -- sitting and bending forward among them. This loss of inward curve may contribute to many back and spinal problems, especially bulging or herniated disks, and it can certainly be a major source of pain. You can reduce your pain and help heal your back by returning the normal inward curve to your low back with this exercise.
Lie on your stomach with your body outstretched and your hands under your shoulders. Keeping your hips in contact with the floor, gently press your upper body off of the floor until you feel mild tension in your low back. Hold this position for at least ten seconds. At first, you may only be able to raise yourself a small distance off of the floor; don't think you have to straighten your elbows. In time, you may be able to press-up to that point, but take it slowly. It may take months to put back into your spine the curve that was lost over years. Remember to breathe normally and repeat the stretch three to five times for the most benefit.
Try Lumbar Rotation
Rotation is one of your spine's normal and vital motions. Any time you reach out with one arm, your spine rotates as your arm extends away from your body. An injury or a strain can, of course, limit your spine's ability to rotate, but some normal activities performed over and over to one side can have the same effect. Exercising your spine's ability to rotate in both directions will help your back stay mobile and pain free. The lumbar region of the spine is the part that runs through your low back, and its rotational flexibility is the focus of this exercise.
Lie on your back with your hips and knees bent. Your knees should be pointing straight up. Your feet should be flat on the floor with your heels up near your buttocks. Lay your arms out on both sides of your body, and gently allow your knees to drop toward the floor on the left side until you feel the stretch in your low back. Don't worry if your knees don't make it all the way to the floor before you feel the stretch. Only go to the point of mild tension, not beyond. Eventually, you may be able to go all the way, but don't push it. Hold the stretch for at least ten seconds. Then, return your knees slowly to the starting position, and repeat the stretch to the right side. Alternate and repeat the stretch three to five times on each side.
In addition to the exercising you do to keep your body in shape, there are specific exercises you can try to strengthen the muscles that support your back. Turn to the next section to learn how.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.