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Back stiffness: Why is my back tight in the morning?

Back stiffness: Why is my back tight in the morning?

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

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 tightness?  

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 this is 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.

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. 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.

If you want to reduce the chance of surgery and injections while not committing to physical therapy or other means of care check out my course on degeneration! If you are an adult living with degenerative disc disease or arthritis and you want clarity and relevant answers to your problems. No more wasted time on Googling or unnecessary doctor visits.

What this course addresses: What is causing degeneration or arthritis? How can I make myself feel better without large commitments? How do I stop it from getting worse? How do I know what I am doing is right?

Check it out! 


Why do I wake up feeling stiff?

As we sleep, we have an increase if fluid in our discs. This fluid builds overnight and it results in little in height. You are taller in the morning than you are in the afternoon. This is due to gravity and movement which 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. 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.

The best way to address that morning lower back stiffness? 

  • Morning 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! Quick relief from back stiffness or back tightness comes from movement. Movement is a safe, reliable, long-term choice to improve lower back stiffness and tightness. This movement will allow the disc and related joints to move fluid and improve stiffness. It will also warm up the back muscles getting you ready for your day.

Lower back stretching video
Check out my Youtube video for quick relief stretches that will help you in the morning!

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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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