Tight Lower Back: Causes, Treatment and Stretches

The lower back is medically described as the lumbar region. This region is made up of 5 lumbar vertebrae (spine bones) and it is stabilized by muscles and ligaments. Sometimes, it could feel tight with some associated symptoms like pain, muscle spasms, and stiffness.

What Causes Lower Back Tightness

1. Prolonged Sitting

Sitting for long periods of time at work, in traffic, in the car or at home can cause a tight back. When you sit without back support for a prolonged time, your back muscles have to contract instead of relaxing, leading to tightness.

2. Weak Core Muscles

The abdominal muscles support the lower back muscles in stabilizing the spine. 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. It can be from overstretching or overuse. This overuse can cause our muscles to go into spasms, an involuntary contraction of the muscle, which can be painful and lead to tightness.

4. Ligament Sprains

Ligaments are soft tissues that join bones together. A sprain is a ligament injury. It can be an overstretching, a partial or complete tear. When the ligaments are injured, the muscles overwork to compensate.

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5. Tight Lower Limb Muscles

For easy movement of the body, there needs to be muscle balance. There needs to be 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. Herniated Disc

An intervertebral disc allows easy movement of the vertebral bones on each other. They may slip out and compress nerves that supply the muscles. A slipped or herniated disc can cause muscles to go into spasm.

Symptoms Of A Tight Lower Back

  • Waist pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Waist stiffness when trying to pick up something from the floor
  • Tingling sensations in the leg

Diagnostic Tests

It’s good to see your doctor to be sure why your lower back feels tight. Diagnostic tests might be recommended to pinpoint the major cause of the tight muscles.

Radiological tests like an X-ray, MRI or CT scan might be requested.

Treatment

Medications

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

Thermal Therapy

Ice can help to relieve the tightness of the muscles at the back and can also help relieve the associated pain. 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. Care has to be taken not to scald the skin.

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 also educate on proper posture, suitable stretches that can be done at work and encourage you to have an active lifestyle. A myofascial release massage can be used to ease out tightness in the muscles.

Tight Lower Back Stretches

1. Cat-Cow Pose

This stretches the back muscles and the abdominals

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  • 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

  • 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

Prevention

  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 by flexing your knees because poor lifting builds up tension in the lower back.
  4. Be more physically active.
  5. Sleep with an appropriate mattress. An orthopedic or semi-orthopedic mattress is usually recommended to provide support to the spine. Use enough pillows. When sleeping on your side, you can place a pillow under your neck and another one in between your knees. When sleeping on your back, pillows can be placed under your head, neck, and knees.

Summary

A tight lower back is caused by prolonged sitting, poor posture and a sedentary lifestyle. Taking a stretching break and making time for routine physical exercise can go a long way in reducing symptoms and preventing further pain.

If it persists more than a few days, you should see your doctor for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

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