Back pain? These exercises could help

If you suffer from lower back pain, then you aren’t alone. One in six adults in England will experience some form of the debilitating condition during their lifetime, according to Arthritis Research UK, and it’s the largest single cause of disability in the country.

Lack of exercise, weight gain and stress are among the many causes, but what can you do to help your relieve the pain and stiffness?

Research has suggested that Pilates exercises are effective in decreasing pain as well as improving flexibility and movement in people with chronic lower back pain.

Pilates instructor, Christine Simms is also a physiotherapist, psychotherapist and founder of The Mind-Body Guide. She’s got the best advice on how to manage back pain, ways to avoid causing more harm and five simple and gentle exercises that can make a difference.

A man trying to get off a white sofa, clutching his back and grimacing in pain.Credit: Shutterstock / sebra
One in six of us has suffered from back pain.

The causes of a bad back

Why have I got back pain?

Pain is a normal part of life; it’s there to protect us from injury and helps keep us safe. Before you reach for Dr Google, ask yourself:

  • What has been different for me recently?
  • Is there anything else going on around you?
  • Do you really need to worry?

This is because lots of things can contribute to your feelings of pain; even your mood and stress levels can affect it.

The same process that created the problem will most likely solve the problem, too. This process is inflammation and movement. For acute low back pain, symptoms will usually have settled within four to six weeks.

How to manage back pain

What to do when you’ve got a bad back

Painkillers for short-term pain relief

When you think about managing pain, some common treatments will probably come to mind. Medication and low dose over-the-counter products, to stronger prescribed painkillers are generally good for short-term pain relief.

Relax the muscles to ease pain

These include massage and manual therapies like those used in physiotherapy, osteopathy or chiropractic. Rest, electro therapy, heat and ice are also options, as well as acupuncture. They can provide short-term relief by relaxing the muscles, which then allow movement to take place in what was a painful area.

It’s important to keep moving

Once anything sinister has been ruled out, following an assessment by your health care provider, it’s important to start moving. Even if it isn’t very much movement, it counts. The saying goes “motion is lotion”, so imagine that the movement is lubricating your body. Just have a little wiggle and a jiggle!

Don't overdo it

Rather than pushing through pain, it’s best to proceed at a gentler pace. Ideally you are looking to find the sweet spot – not too much, and not too little. Exercising ‘just the right amount’ lets you know you are doing something good, but not overdoing it.

5 exercises to help back pain

Pilates to ease back pain

As we get older, balance, flexibility and strength all decrease. Picking things up, climbing out of bed and even getting off the toilet can be increasingly tricky.

Pilates is helpful for people with back pain because it teaches the body how to move again. It’s important to start gently at first and learn the movements of rotation, flexion and extension. If you are starting beginners Pilates I would advise you to listen to your body and stick to a movement range where you feel safe.

How Pilates can help

The focus of Pilates is on postural alignment, balance and stability. It introduces you to exercises that can form a long-lasting habit, ones that can profoundly change your posture and improve everyday life movements. What’s more, they make you feel great afterwards!

People find that they can bend down and pick things up from the floor without even giving it a second thought and even rediscover things like standing on one leg and putting socks on.

Repetitions

Start with five repetitions of each of these exercises to begin with and then build to 10 or more, depending on how you feel.

If you are unsure if these exercises are unsuitable for you, please seek professional medical advice.

1. Sitting cat-cow

This is an exercise to mobilise the entire spine.

  1. Place your hands on your knees and inhale to prepare.
  2. As you breathe out, roll your chin towards your chest and slide your hands down your legs. Feel your spine curling into a ‘C’ shape.
  3. Then, slowly and smoothly uncurl, sliding your hands back up and straightening the spine.
  4. Drop your arms down by your side then reach them out to the side, continue moving the spine, lifting the breastbone up and forwards so you are making a small curve in the opposite direction.

TIP: Keep breathing and move in a range within which you feel safe. Visualise your spine being lubricated as you curl and uncurl.

2. Spine twist

For spinal mobility and rotation.

  1. Sitting with your hands across your chest, inhale to prepare.
  2. As you begin to exhale rote your shoulders and spine round to the left or right.
  3. Pause and hold the stretch and, with the next out-breath, rotate back to the centre.
  4. Repeat to the other side.

TIP: Imagine your rib cage is rotating around your spine as you move.

3. Standing mermaid stretch

Great for mid-back stiffness.

  1. Stand with your feet just wider than hip width apart and your knees slightly bent.
  2. Breathe in and lift the left arm up towards the ceiling and over to the side, allowing your trunk to bend laterally as if bringing your right shoulder to the right hip.
  3. Don’t bounce at the end of the stretch; instead, breathe out to release the tightness in the muscles.
  4. Sweep the arm back and over to the start and then repeat to the other side.

TIP: Breathe deeply and keep the shoulders relaxed. Only move in a range within which you feel safe.

4. Knee hug

This helps stretch your muscles and relieve tension from the low back and pelvis.

  1. Lying on your back, slowly bring either one or both knees towards your chest.
  2. Place both hands over the knees and gently draw them into the body.
  3. Release and repeat.

TIP: Start with single leg ones first. Breathe out as you hug the knee and breath in as you release and let go.

5. Pilates bridge

This builds muscle strength and encourages movement of the spine.

  1. Lying on your back, place both hands on your hips to start.
  2. Slowly tilt your hips towards the floor while flattening your back.
  3. Then place your arms down by your side, palms down.
  4. Scoop your tailbone upwards and continue to peel your spine off the mat, bone by bone.
  5. Lift up only as high as feels comfortable.
  6. Pause at the top for a breath. Then, as you exhale, lower the bridge one bone at a time.

TIP: Bring the heels quite far in towards the bottom. Imagine the spine is like a bicycle chain and you are lifting and lowering the links – oiling your chain. This exercise is easier to feel on the floor as lying on a bed is often too soft.

Expert tips on how to keep your back mobile

How to avoid back pain

Get moving

Spending prolonged periods of time spent without moving is really bad for your back. You should aim to get up and move around every 20-30 minutes to lubricate your joints. This reduces joint stiffness and the likelihood of developing back pain.

Don’t take shortcuts to save time

It may be that you carry one heavy shopping bag rather than splitting the load into two? Or else you overreach while gardening, rather than moving closer? Take a step back and think what advice you’d give to someone else.

Plan your moves and take time to prepare for heavy tasks where there is a possibility of overloading joints and causing a muscle strain.

Make it a regular habit

Think of your back health as a journey rather than a destination. Have a structured exercise routine that incorporates varied movement and loading. Our bodies are designed to move and it’s important to mobilise all of our joints.

Concentrate on activities that make you feel healthy, strong and energised. If you can tune into your body and realise how good movement makes you feel, it will keep you motivated.

Seated exercises for back pain

Try some seated exercises

Whether your back pain means you’re not quite mobile enough to do the other moves or you want exercise while at your desk, I’ve created this short sequence especially for Saga. It takes under 10 minutes and will give you gentle moves to help your back.

Christine Simms

Written by Christine Simms she/her

Updated:

Christine Simms is physiotherapist, Pilates instructor and founder of the Mind-Body Guide. She has been a health professional for over 30 years and now uses her skills in both physiotherapy and psychotherapy to help people understand themselves mentally and physically.