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Why is My Back So Stiff in the Morning?

Why is My Back So Stiff in the Morning?

Dr. Michael Derry, DPT, PT, OCS Jacksonville, Florida
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Fatigued or strained muscles, normal age related changes, or awkward sleeping positions are often to blame for a stiff and tight back in the morning. However, there are many things YOU can do to help YOURSELF feel better! Lets dive in.

What Causes my Lower Back Stiffness?  

Back tightness or stiffness often occurs due to age related changes in your spine. This includes the facet joints, discs, and other related structures. All of these are completely normal. Tightness or stiffness in your back can occur in your upper and lower back. It is more common to be in your lower back just above your buttocks. When you sleep you are mostly still, which means that your joints that rely on movement for nutrients and lubrication aren’t getting that.


This is completely normal but as a result we can have this feeling of stiffness or tightness in your lower back joints and back muscles. We are built to move and our joints love the nourishment from movement. When I work with individuals with lower back stiffness, I always encourage them to move. If you think about it, we often feel better after moving. This can be as simple as walking or completing mobility exercises.

Exercise and movement improve the facet joints mobilty thus the feeling of stiffness in the lower back. You have a lot of them so that's why your entire back can feel stiff! 

Facet Joints Can Cause Lower Back Stiffness
Facet Joints Can Cause Lower Back Stiffness

As you age this stiffness or tightness in your back can increase as well. The days of jumping out of bed without that stiffness or tightness are not as common as they used to be. The great news is that a simple morning regiment can alleviate lower back stiffness and allow you to start your day feeling so well.

Did you know that up to 33% of your spine length is due to the discs?
Anatomy of intervertebral disc
Anatomy of intervertebral disc

That is why we lose some height as we get older. Those discs lose some fluid over time causing a loss in overall height. This loss of disc height is classified as degeneration. Disc degeneration is very normal and nearly 100% of people will have it in their lifetime.

Why Do I Wake Up Feeling Stiff?

As we sleep, we have an increase if fluid in our discs and joints. This fluid builds overnight and it results in little increase in height. That fluid will also allow inflammation to sit in our joints. It's often very mild but after 6-8 hours of sleeping, those joints will be full and feel stiff.

You are taller in the morning because your discs fill with fluid as you sleep! 

Gravity and movement moves the fluid in and out of your discs. This is exactly what they are built to do. Don’t believe me, do you feel looser after moving? Motion is lotion baby! 

The discs rely on this fluid to distribute force so you can remain flexible and strong. As we age, our discs aren’t as fluid filled and they lose some elasticity. Just like the skin on your body. It's very normal but this means you need to move to have the relief in the stiffness or tightness in your back.

The lack of movement during the night means the disc can’t move the nutrients in and out like it can when you move.

This lack of movement, age, and some other factors results in morning stiffness and tightness.

As we age, we develop normal conditions in our spine and discs such as degenerative disc disease.

How is degenerative disc disease is diagnosed and treated? 

We need to understand that degenerative disc disease or DDD, is very common. It occurs with time and we can't stop it. We can help slow it down with movement, healthy lifestyle choices, and loading your spine (resistance training).

Sometimes, factors out of our control such as genetics play a role as well. What I am trying to say is that we treat your body and how it feels, not what a picture shows us. The only way to diagnose DDD or arthritic changes in your spine is with images such as X-rays or MRIs. The top 5 questions I get about DDD or degenerative disc disease.

The great news is that the correlation between the amount of degenerative changes and pain, ins't strong.

So you can have a lot of changes in your spine ranging from arthritis to DDD without constant lower back pain. I have seen this so many times when I treat patients.

If you want to reduce the chance of surgery and injections while not committing to physical therapy or other means of care then check out other resources on my YouTube Channel or Blog so that you can improve your spine health! 

Why is My Lower Back Pain Worse in the Morning? 

Lower back pain can feel worse in the morning for multiple reasons.

  • Lack of movement builds pressure in the lower back
  • Inflammation builds up in our joints
  • You were really active the day before
  • Sleeping on your back or stomach

Most often when I treat clients, they report pain in the morning or after a long time sitting. When we sit or lie down for an extended period of time, our joints are not moving. This lack of movement in the muscles and joints results in this perceived stiffness.

You don’t know how many times that I hear people are stiffer in the morning than any other time in the day. Well, when you have pain, you have inflammation as well. That inflammation sits in our joints all night long resulting in an increase in pain and stiffness when we try to sleep or wake up.

Much like morning stiffness, lower back pain in the morning can improve with mobility exercises. I recommend that for all of my clients who report pain in morning.

The best way to address that morning lower back stiffness and pain? 

The best way to address morning lower back stiffness is a morning or evening mobility regiment. A simple few exercises to address morning stiffness can make all the difference to the start of your day. This regiment must be easy to complete and effective. Everyone and every body is a little different but this is a great place to start

In conclusion, understanding the factors contributing to morning back stiffness, such as age-related changes and prolonged periods of immobility during sleep, is crucial for implementing effective solutions.

I always emphasize the significance of movement in alleviating lower back stiffness and promoting spine health. While degenerative disc disease is a common occurrence, its correlation with pain varies, and a tailored approach to addressing individual symptoms is paramount. A morning mobility regimen, comprising simple yet targeted exercises, serves as a practical and reliable method to enhance flexibility, encourage fluid movement in the spine, and mitigate stiffness.


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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