You put a little too much snap into that bend, and now you’ve tweaked something in your back. It’s probably not comforting to know at the moment, but you’re far from alone in your suffering. Back injuries and chronic back pain are some of the leading causes of disability worldwide.
Back injuries cause over 264 million missed workdays in the US each year alone. They also cost Americans around $50 billion annually in healthcare. If you add in the missed work and the costs of low productivity, that number doubles.
Back pain is a common problem, but it doesn’t have to be a chronic problem for you. If you’re currently suffering from back pain or a recent injury, stretching and strengthening can help speed up the recovery and prevent it from happening again.
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You might be asking yourself what should you do after a back injury, stretch or try to strengthen? The short answer in both!
Stretching is beneficial immediately after an injury to regain motion and calm down the nervous system. While strengthening is important to speed up healing, improves muscle health, and will help prevent back injuries in the future.
Two Types of Back Injuries
Some back problems are chronic issues, while others are caused by underlying issues. Many back injuries can be treated or avoided altogether. Back injuries can be caused by acute injuries or overuse.
These injuries occur suddenly through a certain action, like when you twist the wrong way or try to lift too much.
If you experience an acute injury, you’ll probably notice some tightness and swelling in your back. Acute injuries include strains, sprains, ruptured discs, injuries to the nerves, and dislocation.
Unlike acute injuries, the symptoms of overuse injuries usually present themselves gradually. In this case, back pain is typically caused by postural deficits while lifting, standing, walking, sitting, or even sleeping. These are common injuries after being sedentary and then having a sudden change in activity level that the back isn’t ready for.
No matter the cause of the injury, if it’s causing you pain, it’s important to do two things. Stretching and strengthening your back muscles helps lessen the pain and reduce the chances of reinjury.
Immediate Response to a Back Injury
As soon as you injure your back, assess the damage. In that vast majority of cases, back pain is not an emergency. If it’s a minor injury that doesn’t require medical attention, here are some things you should try for relief.
- Apply Ice for 20-30 minute intervals every 3 to 4 hours over 3 days if the pain continues.
- After 3 days of icing, start treating pain by applying heat. You can use a heating pad, warm bottles, or a hot bath to relax the muscles in your back.
- If your doctor okays it, treat pain with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug like Advil.
- Continue to move and walk. Rest is ok but low back pain responds best to walking that most other treatments.
After you’ve made it through the initial shock of the injury, it’s tempting to get back to your everyday activities. Resist the urge to jump back in with both feet. You still have more work to do. As soon as your able, you’ll need to start stretching and strengthening those back muscles.
To Stretch or to Strengthen: What’s more important?
Short answer? Both! Stretching and strengthening your back are important when treating and preventing back pain or injuries.
The Benefits of Stretching Your Back
Stretching leads to more flexible muscles, and the more flexible your muscles are the less likely they are to be injured. Think about it like spaghetti. Cooked spaghetti is a lot more pliable and less likely to snap than uncooked spaghetti. It’s the same with your muscles. Warm them up with some stretching and you’ll be flexing all over the place.
Stretching is great for helping prevent injuries, but if you’re already suffering from a back injury or pain you can still benefit from it. Stretching your back after an injury:
- Improves range of motion
- Reduces tightness
- Helps lower pain levels by desensitizing the nerves in your back
Try These Back Stretches
These stretches can help treat and prevent back pain, but always remember to start slowly. If you’re new to stretching:
- Start with 10-second stretches and work your way up to 30-second intervals
- Move slowly, it’s not a race
- The longer you can hold them, the better for pain treatment
- Begin on your hands and knees
- Extend your arms out with palms flat on the floor
- Slowly drop your hips back to sit on your heels
- Drop your head down towards your chest
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor
- Stretch your arms out to the side to make a “T” shape
- Roll both knees to one side while keeping your shoulders on the floor. Hold this position for 20 seconds.
- Return your knees to the center and repeat on the other side
- Start on your hands and knees with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders
- Start with the cow pose by dropping your belly toward the ground and lifting your chin to look at the ceiling
- Change to the cat pose by arching your back and slowly relaxing your neck to look down
- Repeat this 10 to 20 times, remember to inhale into the cow position and exhale into cat position
The Benefits of Strengthening Your Back
Your muscles are responsible for the movement and support of your body. Weak muscles lead to wobbly movements and wobbly movements lead to injured backs. The solution? Strengthen those back muscles.
Just like with stretching, strengthening back muscles helps to prevent injuries, but it’s also useful in treating one that has already occurred. Once you’re able to strengthen those muscles, you’ll see that it helps by:
- Reducing swelling
- Improving blood flow to the injured area
- Reducing the risk of re-injury
- Improve muscle health
Try These Back Strengthening Exercises
- Lay on the ground with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor in line with your hips
- Keep your arms pressed to the floor and lift your buttocks until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees
- Slowly lower your buttocks to the ground
- Repeat 15 times
- Lie facedown on the ground with your legs straight and your arms extended out over your head
- Raise your hands and your feet about 6 inches off the ground and hold in the “Superman” position for 2 seconds
- Keep your head straight looking down at the floor
- Do 10 repetitions
The Bottom Line
Whether it’s an acute injury or from overuse, a back injury is no joke. If you’re experiencing back pain, you should have two goals in mind. First, get back to normal as quickly as you can. Second, do what you can to reduce the risk of reinjury. Stretching and strengthening are equally important in helping you obtain these goals. Stretching your muscles for flexibility and strengthening them for more stability will help you heal quickly and reduce your chances of injuring your back in the future.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only. This is not a substitute for a medical appointment. Please refer to your physician before starting any exercise program.