Back Stiffness: 7 Ways to Loosen Up

Readers ask all the time: What can I do to ease my stiff, sore back? We've got seven tips for how to stretch, sleep, tone and limber up that will take the ache away.

1. Sleep Better. Sometimes, getting out of bed can be the toughest part of the day. That's because, after a long night sleeping, your back muscles and joints become stiff from lack of movement. The key to easing the pain could be all in how you sleep.

  • If you're a side-sleeper - place a pillow between your knees to keep your spine in a neutral position and reduce pressure on your lower back.
  • If you're a back-sleeper - place a pillow under your knees.
  • If you're a stomach sleeper - (which is the toughest position for your back), try to retrain yourself to sleep on your side. If that's not possible, place a pillow under your pelvis to maintain the normal curvature of the spine.

2. Start your day with stretching. Before you get out of bed:

  • Roll onto your back and stretch your legs and arms as far as possible.
  • Bend your knees up to your abdomen and stretch your legs again.
  • Roll onto your side and ease into a sitting position at the side of your bed.
  • Wiggle your toes, rotate your ankles, bend gently at the waist and give your legs one more stretch.
  • Stand up and gently bend forward and side-to-side at the waist, but don't go too far. You'll do more stretching later in the morning.

3. Get moving. Get your circulation moving and your joints lubricated by taking an early walk or swim or by hitting the treadmill or elliptical trainer. The earlier in your morning that you exercise, the better your back will feel all day.

4. Stretch after exercise. The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends standing hip stretches, outer hamstring stretches, and standing latissimus dorsi (back) stretches to help relax and elongate tight muscles that pull on your pelvis and spine.

5. Give your back a break. Whenever you'll be sitting for long periods of time, say, for example when you're working at a computer, sitting in the car or spending time on the couch - make it a habit to stand up and walk around for a few minutes out of every hour. If your back is very stiff, repeat your early morning stretching routine. Your back may feel better if you minimize the amount of time you spend sitting, if you elevate your feet on a stool to take pressure of your back and if you use a lumbar pillow in your chair.

6. Do seated exercises. If standing up and walking around aren't options (you're on a road trip or in a plane), move your legs, hips and back in any way you can. Do single leg knee-bends, seated forward bends and stretch your arms over your head.

7. Warm Up. Soaking in a warm bath or using a heating pad are excellent ways to increase circulation, warm tight muscles and ease back pain. In fact, some people who experience frequent back pain and stiffness invest in a hot tub to start and end their days soaking in the warmth. 

Of course, the best way to ease back pain is to prevent it altogether. Exercise regularly to keep your back, leg and core muscles toned and to maintain a normal body weight. See your doctor about chronic back pain and ask about massage therapy and physical therapy.

Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR reviewed this article.

The Arthritis Treatment Center
Frederick, Maryland


National Academy of Sports Medicine

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