There are a lot of stretches and exercises you can do to help loosen up your lower back. But when you have bad enough nerve pain that even putting on your socks or shoes is a real struggle, you’ll want to stay with more gentle exercises. My first tip is if your back pain is bad enough that it is lingering in your lower back or is potentially shooting down your leg, you need to consult an Athletic Therapist or Physiotherapist for in-person treatment. However, while you wait for your appointment with them, in this blog post I wrote up 10 exercises you can give a try when you have new (acute) and inflamed lower back nerve pain.
IMPORTANT: If you are suffering from sharp or shooting nerve pain in your lower back or going down your leg, this is your sciatic nerve. When a nerve is inflamed and in the acute stages of healing, the last thing you want to do is stretch that nerve even more as this may irritate the nerve. As you are doing any of these exercises, listen to your body and be mindful of how you feel while doing them. If there is any intense pain, you need to stop or not push as far into the stretch. Move slow when going into these stretches as any fast movement may pinch the nerve and cause pain. These should be PAIN-FREE when you are in the acute stages of your injury. Do not feel like you need to do all of the exercises listed, you can do a handful of them or all of them depending on how you feel until your pain subsides. With all of this in mind, let’s begin.
Wall Ball Glute Release: Take a lacrosse ball or tennis ball and place it into the meaty part of your buttocks (do not place it on your spine). Lean against a wall, and push your body weight into the ball. Roll the ball slowly from side to side and up and down until you hit a spot that is causing a minor amount of discomfort (this is a trigger point). You only want this discomfort to be a 5/10 on the pain scale (1 = no pain, 10 = the worst pain you have ever felt). Stay on this spot until the pain subsides to a 1-2/10, this should occur within 10 seconds. If it does not subside, stays at the 5/10 or gets worse let it go and move to a new spot. Continue this routine for 3-5 min to give you a good chance to find all of your trigger points. Repeat this on the other side.
Standing Hamstring Stretch: As I mentioned above, we do not want to stretch the nerve right now, so be sure you slowly move into this stretch and only go as far as you start to get a comfortable stretch into your hamstrings (the back of your leg). Step one leg forward and point the toes and foot of that leg up toward the sky. Be sure you are bending through your hips and not your lower back, and lean forward slowly until you start to feel a stretch in the back of your leg. Hold this stretch starting with 5 seconds, engage your core and glutes and stand back up. Repeat on the other side and work up to being able to hold this stretch for 10 seconds.
Pelvic Tilt: Laying on your back with both of your knees bent, tilt your pelvis backwards as if you are flattening your lower back to the ground. Only go so far into this tilt that it is pain-free, but try to tilt further each time if you can, but DO NOT push too far into it where you cause pain in your back. Remember, you want all of these exercises to be pain-free at this stage. Repeat this tilt 5 times and build up to being able to do it 10 times.
TA Activation: This exercise is to get a gentle contraction to your abdomen, this will help to strengthen your spine. When your spine is injured, it needs the support of the surrounding muscles. Laying on your back with both of your knees bent, contract your abdomen in towards your spine and slightly up towards your heart. If you are having trouble with this movement, take a deep breath into your belly, as you exhale, continue that exhale in towards your spine and push all of the air out of your lungs. Now hold that contraction but breathe normally at the same time. If you can, add a pelvic floor contraction at the same time by doing a kegel. Hold the contraction and do 5-10 breaths, let it go and repeat 3 times.
Supported Lying Butterfly Stretch: Laying on your back, place two pillows next to your hips. Bend both of your knees with your feet touching the ground. Allow both knees to drop to the side so that your legs are in an open position. Your knees will be rested on top of the pillows, allow your legs to relax and let gravity gently stretch the inside of your thighs. Hold this stretch for 5-10 seconds, and when you are ready to come out of the stretch use your hands to help guide your legs back up.
Knee To Chest: Laying on your back let one leg extend out straight, and slowly move your bent knee in towards your chest. Use your hands and arms to help support your leg into your chest. Only go so far as you feel a comfortable stretch and no pain. Hold this stretch for 5-10 seconds, and when you are finished slowly lower your bent leg back to the ground, bend your straight leg up and then extend the opposite leg and repeat on the other side.
Laying Figure 4: Laying on your back, bend both of your knees and rest your feet on the ground. Cross one ankle over the opposite knee, and gently push the bent knee down until you feel a stretch. If you feel you can go further into the stretch, pull the leg with the ankle crossed over it up towards your chest. Be sure that this movement is slow and pain-free. Hold either stretch for 5-10 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Lumbar Rotations – Windshield Wipers: Laying on your back bend both of your knees and rest your feet on the ground. Slowly and with control, engage your core (the TA activation you did above) to support your spine, and let both knees drop to one side. Only go as far as your body will allow right now with no pain. Be sure your core is still engaged and bring both knees over to the other side. Repeat going back and forth 5-10 times with trying to drop your knees closer to the ground each time as long as your back allows it.
Side-lying Quad and Hip Flexor Stretch: Laying on your side, bending your bottom knee for extra support and straightening your top leg. Now, slow and controlled, bend your top knee so your foot is going towards the same side hand. Grab onto your foot with your same side hand, gently pelvic tilt (as we talked about above), and be sure your leg is in line with your hips and not bent forward. You should feel this stretch in the front of your hip and leg comfortably with no pain. Hold this stretch for 5-10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Go for a short walk: With any lower back, leg or hip pain, you want to avoid sitting for too long. The longer you sit the more the muscles will tighten up and push on the nerves causing pain. Set a timer for 20 min and stand up, walk around for a bit or go for a short 10 min walk to stretch your legs and loosen up the nerve. You don’t want to go too far in the acute stages of your back pain, as you don’t want to be stuck not being able to get back due to pain.
There are many stretches and exercises you can try to help alleviate your back pain during the beginning stages of your back injury. Above are a few of them, I would also suggest having a bath or applying heat to your back to help loosen the muscles even further. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to go and see a healthcare provider like an athletic therapist or physiotherapist to help you heal correctly from your back pain. However, in the meantime, you can try the exercises mentioned above. Above all else, know that this will take time to heal, be kind to yourself and listen to your body knowing that pain relief is just around the corner.