Tight Lower Back: Causes, Exercises and Treatment

That sharp pain we feel at our waist after sitting for a long period of time or the stiffness we feel after driving in heavy traffic can sometimes be worrisome.

You may be wondering what to do to relieve this tight feeling or prevent it from recurring.

We will be discussing what causes lower back tightness, how it can be treated and its prevention in this post.

The Lower Back

Back pain

The lower back is usually described as the lumbar region. The lumbar region is made up of 5 lumbar vertebrae (spine bones) and it is stabilized by muscles and ligaments.

Some of the major muscles that support the lumbar spine are:

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  1. Quadratus Lumborum is a muscle of the abdominal wall that plays a major role in stabilizing the lower part of the back. It enables us to bend our body to the right and left and extend our spine. When this muscle gets tight, it can cause severe pain at the back.
  2. Multifidus is a small and powerful muscle. It stabilizes the lumbar spine and keeps it erect. We can say that this muscle is our biological lumbar corset. This muscle is activated when an action involving the back is about to take place. It helps us twist the trunk from side to side and also contributes to the extension of the spine.
  3. The erector spinae is a group of 3 muscles that erects the spine as the name implies. These 3 muscles, which are the longissimus dorsi, the iliocostalis, and the spinalis, run parallel against each other and are the powerful extensors of the spine. It starts from the sacrum and runs along the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine.

What Can Make Our Lower Back Tight?

Poor posture

1. Poor Posture

We sit for long periods of time at work, in traffic, in the car, and at home. After a long day at work, we sit on our couch with our backs unsupported and the back muscles have to contract instead of relaxing to support our back. As we continue to sit for long hours and assume very different and funny postures, the muscles will start to complain and then they get tight because they are not being utilized properly.

2. Weak Core Muscles

The abdominal muscles support the lower back muscles in stabilizing the spine. An example of this muscle is the quadratus lumborum which was explained earlier. When these muscles are weak, it gives the back muscles a lot of work to do. This overworks the back and causes tightness.

3. Muscle Strains

A strain is an injury to the muscles which can be an overstretching or an overuse related injury. This overuse can cause our muscles to go into spasms, an involuntary contraction of the muscle, which can be painful and lead to shortening and tightening of muscles.

4. Ligament Sprains

Ligaments are soft tissues that join bones together. The ligaments are supported by the muscles in stabilizing a joint. A sprain is an injury to a ligament which can be an overstretching, partial or complete tear of the ligaments. When the ligaments are injured, the muscle overworks itself to compensate for the weak ligaments which can lead to the muscles tightening.

5. Tight Lower Limb Muscles

hamstrings

For easy movement of the body, there needs to be muscle balance. There needs to be a harmony between the back muscles, hip muscles and the leg muscles.

Tight hamstrings and hip flexors can cause back pain. The hamstrings bend the knee and extend the hip while the hip flexors enable us to bring our knee towards our chests. When these muscles get tight, which is usually from sitting for long periods of time, the back muscles that support the movement of the thigh get overworked and in the process, cause tightness at the back.

6. Sedentary Lifestyle

A sedentary lifestyle is basically being a couch potato. Being sedentary has a lot of negative impacts on us like hypertension and diabetes. It also causes tight back muscles. As explained earlier, after sitting for a long period of time without getting up or stretching, the muscles get strained and gradually become tight.

7. Herniated Disc

A slipped disc can cause muscles to go into spasm. An intervertebral disc allows easy movement of the vertebral bones on each other and they may slip out and compress nerves that supply the muscles. The compressed nerve does not send enough information to the muscle which can cause the muscles to begin to contract on their own and cause tightness.

What Signs Can Be Used To Detect A Tight Lower Back?

  • Pain at the waist
  • Spasms
  • Stiffness at the waist when trying to pick something from the floor
  • Tightness in the muscles of the legs
  • Tingling sensations in the leg

What Exercises Can Be Done To Stretch Out Tight Lower Back?

back stretches

1. Cat-Cow Pose

This stretches the back muscles and the abdominals

  • Go into a crawling position
  • Your palms should be directly under your shoulder and your knees directly under your hips while maintaining the crawling position
  • Contract your abdominal muscles and let your entire back curve upwards and then slowly let your back sink in to form a “U”.
  • Repeat 10 times

2. Knee To Chest Stretches

  • Lie on your back
  • Bend your right knee and move it towards your chest
  • Use your hands to hug your bent knee to your chest
  • Hold for 20 seconds
  • Release the right leg and repeat on the left knee

3. Figure 4 stretch

  • Lie on your back on a mat
  • Bend both knees
  • Place the ankle of your right leg on the left knee joint. Your right knee will point towards the right
  • Place both hands behind your left thigh and pull your left thigh with the right ankle still on the left knee towards your chest
  • Hold for 20 seconds
  • Slowly release and repeat on the other leg.

4. Child’s Pose

  • Kneel on a mat
  • Place your palms on the mat so you assume a crawling position
  • Ensure your knees are hip-width apart
  • Move your buttocks to sit on your heels without removing your palms from where they are
  • Let your forehead rest on the mat
  • Stay in this pose for 30 seconds

5. Lower Back Stretches

  • Lie on your back
  • Bend your right knee
  • Place your left hand on your right knee and pull your knee over your torso towards the left
  • A stretch will be felt at the lower back
  • Hold for 20 seconds and repeat on the left knee

6. Lateral Stretches

This exercise is done standing

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  • Stand straight with your feet apart
  • Place both hands on your waist
  • Bend your trunk towards the right and then take your left hand off your waist, over your head and towards the right to increase the stretch
  • Hold for 5 seconds and repeat on the other side

7. Hamstring Stretches

This can be done sitting or laying down. Stretching the hamstrings will in turn stretch out the lower back muscles.

While sitting,

  • Move forward in your chair to sit on the edge of the chair
  • Stretch out your right leg and bend your left knee to 90 degrees
  • Bend your right ankle upwards
  • Bend slowly at your waist, take your right hand to your right toes and use your left hand to stabilize your left knee joint
  • Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other leg

While laying down,

  • Lie on your back and bend your two knees
  • Place your hands behind your right thigh and pull your right knee to your chest
  • This may seem similar to the knee to chest stretch but the difference is that as you pull your right knee to your chest, you gradually straighten your right knee joint and you will begin to feel the stretch in the right hamstrings
  • Go as far as you can with your right knee slightly straightened
  • Hold for 20 seconds and repeat on the other side

What Other Forms Of Treatment Can Be Done?

treatment options

Diagnostic Tests

When you see a doctor, diagnostic tests will be recommended to pinpoint the major cause of the tight muscles. As discussed under the causes of a tight back, we mentioned a slipped disc which can be noted on an MRI film. An x-ray can also pick out any change in position of the lumbar vertebrae.

Medications

Anti-inflammatory pain relievers or muscle relaxants may be prescribed by the doctor to help relieve pain and relax the tensed muscles at the lumbar region.

Thermal Therapy

Ice can help to relieve tightness of the muscles at the back and can also help relieve pain associated with tightness. Ice can be crushed into a damp towel and placed at the back for 20 minutes. A hot water bottle can also be used to relieve tightness at the lower back.

Physiotherapy

A physiotherapist will assess your back and other parts of the body including the legs because of the close relationship between the back, hips, and legs. The physiotherapist will ensure that there is no other physiological factor causing the tightness at the back. The physiotherapist will also ask some basic questions about your lifestyle and day to day activities that may contribute to a tight back.

The physiotherapist will also educate on proper posture, suitable exercises and stretches that can be done at work and living an active lifestyle. A myofascial release massage can be used to ease out tightness in the muscles.

Prevention

exercise

  1. Reduce your sitting time and go on stretch breaks. Try standing up and moving around after sitting for an hour. Stretches can be done within five minutes so it does not take so much time.
  2. Sit correctly or modify your sitting posture using pillows, a lumbar roll or a backrest at your back. A proper sitting posture involves:
    • Keeping your feet flat on the floor
    • Ensuring your buttocks are touching the back of the chair
    • Knees and hips flexed at 90 degrees
    • Contract your abdominal muscles
    • Ensure your upper back rests against the backrest
    • If the chairs at the office are adjustable, adjust them till you get the correct posture
  3. Lift properly because poor lifting builds up tension in the lower back.
  4. Be more active. There are physical activity guidelines that have been designed. Walking around for 5 to 10 minutes warms up the tight muscles and can relieve pain or tightness at the back.
  5. Sleep with an appropriate mattress. An orthopedic or semi-orthopedic mattress is usually recommended to provide support to the spine. Be generous with pillows. There is no law that states that we should sleep with one pillow. While sleeping on your side, you can place a pillow under your neck and another one in between your knees stacked on each other and slightly bent. Sleeping on your back, a pillow can be placed under your head and neck and also under your knees slightly bent.

Conclusion

take care of your back

A tight lower back is usually tightness of the muscles that stabilize the back. The main causes of a tight back are due to the daily activities that we do not pay close attention to. Sometimes all we need is to stretch and change the way we sit. We just need to care more for our backs.

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Adekanmi Lipede, MPH

Adekanmi Lipede is a licensed physiotherapist with a Master's degree in physical activity and public health. She loves to exercise and read.
Adekanmi Lipede, MPH
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