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The Best Morning Stretches In Bed for Lower Back Pain and Stiffness

The Best Morning Stretches In Bed for Lower Back Pain and Stiffness

Dr. Michael Derry, DPT, PT, OCS Jacksonville, Florida

Say goodbye to morning stiffness with these lower back stretches in bed. Plus, learn why your back is stiff in the morning and the right way to stretch it. Here's the top 5 stretches you should start with:

  1. Cat Camel
  2. Glute Stretch
  3. Lumbar Rotations
  4. Prayer Stretch
  5. Prayer Stretch with Bias

Starting your day off with a series of stretches for the lower back can reduce pain and improve function before we start the day. It can prime your body and reduce the amount of time it takes to get your body acclimated to those first stiff hours that you may experience.

My Grandmother turned 99 this year and has no complaints of back pain and can still go up a flight of stairs.

I asked her what she does every day to stay active. She told me that she does a series of exercises and stretches in bed every morning that takes about 20 minutes. She is the poster child for consistency and is a great example of the impact that this type of routine can offer throughout one's life.

This routine is simple yet effective and can have a huge impact on your back pain and stiffness throughout your day. Don't feel like reading? Check out our video instead!

Disclaimer

Why is my back so stiff and painful in the morning?

Two main reasons: you haven't moved much all night and you're nervous system has a little bit further to travel in the morning.

Many people complain of lower back pain in the morning. Typically, people lay in one or two positions throughout the night. If we are getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep then that means the body is holding the same position for a very long time.

Muscles may be in a shortened position after sleeping, leading to stiffness until we move again. If your back pain is due to muscle stiffness alone, an excellent addition is stretching the muscles of your lower back while still in bed.

However, our joints can also be stiff in the morning because they haven't moved all night either! This fluid is activated when we start to move and can make us less stiff. Think of an old door hinge, it makes noise and doesn’t open very smoothly. When you add oil to it, the creaks go away and it opens and closes easily. Our bodies are the same way.

Our bodies are designed in a way that the more we move the more lubrication is produced at our joints.

Second reason, the discs in our spine absorb water during the night so they have enough cushion to do their job of dispersing forces throughout the day. While this overall change in height is small, it can cause an already irritated nervous system, or symptoms people describe as a pinched nerve, to be a bit more cranky in the morning. The solution is the same: get your muscles, joints, and nerves moving! The stretches outlined in this article are formulated to optimize movement so that you can get and attack the day. 

Morning stretches for lower back pain 

These 5 stretches for morning stiffness in the low back are calculated to mobilize the spine in a pain free manner. They can easily be done first thing in the morning and  take about 10-15 minutes to complete. Performing a stretching routine in the morning before you start your day can easily be done in bed. The bed provides a firm enough surface while giving you enough cushion to be easy on the knees. However, I do usually have my patients get up and move around for a couple of minutes before beginning.

The movements described with these five stretches work together to get the lower back moving from the joint level of the vertebrae, all the way to the muscle and tissue level. We have seen several times that people will have no issues found with an MRI, yet they still have back pain, or significant findings on an MRI that don't correlate at all with their back pain! This means that the problem may be more that the muscles are stiff. Movement and stretching can help reduce this stiffness and get that pesky back pain under control. 

Cat Camel 

A girl on her hands and knees arching her back up towards the ceiling and then sagging her belly down to the floor
Cat Camel

This exercise starts while on the hands and knees. It is important to keep your arms and hands in line with the shoulders and the knees directly under the hips. Most of the time the bed will be soft enough, but if your knees need more cushion, then you can add a pillow under your knees. Start by tilting the pelvis backwards and arching the back up like a cat would do when stretching.

Remember to keep the ranges small in the beginning as you get acclimated to the movement. Follow this arching motion by tilting the pelvis forward and allowing your back to arch in the opposite direction and sticking your butt out. Work your way between both of these positions to improve the mobility of the back. Symptoms that go away from the back and into the hip or leg are a sign that you are going too far or aren’t ready for this exercise just yet and may do best with adding in extension based stretches. There may be some discomfort associated with this at first, but nothing that goes down the leg or back. 

Glute Stretch 

A girl lying on her back, using her arms to bring her knee towards her opposite armpit
Glute Stretch

The glutes can be an overlooked muscle when working on the mobility of the spine. The glutes attachment to the lower back makes them a key player when stretching to reduce pain. This stretch is done while laying on your back in bed . With this stretch we want to follow the muscle fibers of the glutes which run more diagonally from the hip to the back.

It begins by bringing one leg up towards the head of the body. Then bring the raised leg across the body to bias the glutes muscle fibers. The stretch should be felt across the muscles of the glutes and should not provoke any pain down the leg.

Lumbar Rotations 

A girl lying on her back rocking her bent knees side to side
Lumbar Rotations

This stretch is done while laying on your back with your knees bent to about 90 degrees. The stretch should be gentle in that you allow gravity to assist your knees as they fall to one side. Once laying on your back and the knees are bent, allow your legs to gently fall to one side of the body. Only take it to a range that you are comfortable with then let the legs fall to the opposite side. The stretch can be enhanced by placing one leg across the other which pulls the lumbar spine into a deeper stretch. This exercise focuses on rotation of the spine and prepares you for any twisting motion that you may encounter throughout the day. 

Prayer Stretch 

A girl on her hands and knees, rocking backwards until chest is resting towards the floor.
Prayer Stretch

The prayer stretch allows the spine to flex priming the vertebrae for the day. Start in the bed with your hands and knees set up similarly to the cat camel. This allows you to remain stable throughout the movement. Start with your hands under the shoulders and knees in line with the hips. From there, tilt your pelvis so that it is underneath you. Think about contracting your abs. Arch your back up like a cat then rock backwards bringing your hips down to the back of your legs. Make sure you keep your hands where they started as you go back. Hold this pose for about one full breath, then return to the starting position. 

Prayer with Bias 

A girl on her hands and knees, sitting back until her chest is towards the ground and then reaching to one side.e
Prayer Stretch with Bias

If you are experiencing stiffness on one side more than the other, we can use this stretch to isolate the painful side. The setup is the same as the prayer pose that was previously described. The difference is that you will take one hand and bring it to the opposite side, placing it just on the outside hand that is planted. This stretch is a great way to find any asymmetries and target the tighter side.

Physiotherapy exercises for lower back pain

We have countless stretches, workouts, and educational resources across our Revision Health Services platforms, and have also written a book specifically on core strengthening for low back pain. Everyone's back pain is unique and their treatment should be too. If you are looking to continue down the DIY path, check out our resources. If you are looking for more targeted interventions, consult a movement specialist such as a physical therapist.

Physiotherapy exercises for low back pain are a proven and effective intervention. Using exercise and stretching as a form of treatment doesn’t involve any pharmaceuticals or injections and in many cases works better.

Studies have compared using hip and leg stretching versus nothing at all and found that there was a significant reduction in pain intensity in the back when performed regularly. In general, studies show that nearly any form of movement for the treatment of low back pain is better than nothing at all and can have a lasting effect on a person’s function. 

Why stretch in the morning?

Easy, so that you can feel better and hurt less for a larger portion of your day! Stretching to relieve lower back pain in the morning can have a positive impact on physical function AND mental health.Developing a routine that is geared towards one’s well-being such as stretching and mobility can also improve mood and reduce stress. Many people lack structure and find themselves lost while trying to get going in the morning. Following this routine can have an impact that goes deeper than just the physical benefits.

Getting a win by completing 10-15 minutes of self improvement can have a lasting effect on the rest of the day.

I do my best to do my exercising in the morning so there aren’t any things that can get in the way. For those of you who have young children, the early morning may be the only time you have to get these done. 

How should I stretch if my lower back hurts?

Choose stretches that do not provoke pain and, instead, relieve pain after your routine. Stretching is not intended to make you feel worse. If it does, you are either doing it incorrectly or is it not the best stretch for your body at that point. Listen to your body. Seek our help from a movement specialist if you are ready to step away from doing it yourself!

When it comes to low back pain, stretching can be an effective way to help reduce symptoms. How you stretch is largely dependent on finding positions that provoke pain versus those that reduce pain. We often hear patient’s say “no pain, no gain.” That statement is grossly misunderstood. If you cause a flare up in pain then it may inhibit your ability to move and delay the recovery process. When it comes to treating the lumbar spine, provoking pain can have deleterious effects on subsequent activities throughout the day. 

The stretches in this article can all be progressed or regressed depending on the effect they have when performed. They are designed to promote movement, preparing the body for the rest of the day. Rather than grinding through the first hour of your day, spending 15 minutes doing these stretches can reduce that “warm up” period that is painful for most people. 

Remember that you are in control and that your pain shouldn’t control you. This doesn’t mean you should grit your teeth and push forward in all situations, but it means you should work progressively to get back to full function. I tell my patients that incremental steps done daily have a cumulative effect on their well being.

Revision Health Services offers telehealth for Florida residents as well as massage and physical therapy locally in Jacksonville, Nocatee, and St. Johns, Florida. To find out if our services could be the best fit for you, reach out and let's chat!

Until next time, stay healthy, keep moving, and take care of yourself.

References:  

1. Quentin, C., Bagheri, R., Ugbolue, U. C., Coudeyre, E., Pélissier, C., Descatha, A., Menini, T., Bouillon-Minois, J. B., & Dutheil, F. (2021). Effect of Home Exercise Training in Patients with Nonspecific Low-Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(16), 8430. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18168430

Dr. Michael Derry is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and board certified in orthopedics. He is very passionate about treating lower back pain and helping people build their resiliency. He has spent time assisting at universities as well as managing large clinics before starting his own practice in Jacksonville, FL.

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