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.
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.
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.
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.
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