Ever hear someone telling you to lengthen your spine? Been advised to stretch your tight back muscles?
Don’t listen. The science tells us otherwise.
Stretching your spine will at best waste your time, and cause you to bark up the wrong tree looking for a fix or cure. It can make back problems worse, which leads many people to come see me in the clinic.
Stretching your back might feel good, but it’s not good for your spine
I’m not suggesting you hold your spine rigid, all of the time, in fear of movement. Not at all.
In the meantime, here are some basic reasons why you should avoid stretching your spine, regardless if your goals are for fitness, performance, or pain reduction:
1. Muscles are not the problem
We are conditioned to believe that most pain in the body is related to muscles. At the spine, this is not true. An exhaustive review by the world’s authority on spinal anatomy, Nikoli Bogduk, fails to point to any case of mechanism of spine pathology rooted in muscle damage.
Muscle tightness is the symptom, not the cause. When muscles are tight, it’s because they are tired or protecting something. Muscles “spasm” to protect against real or perceived damage to a nearby structure like ligaments, nerves, or discs. Focusing on protective muscles is like yelling at a dog for barking at the intruder. Deal with the offender and the symptom will get better.
Do you know someone who always has to stretch their back because it’s always tight? If stretching worked, then why are the muscles always tight? It’s because they are barking up the wrong tree.
2. Lengthening the spinal muscles is not possible.
If you look at the anatomy of the spine depicting where muscles originate and insert, it becomes clear that if it were feasible to lengthen the muscles, other nearby tissues that are far less adaptable and more vulnerable, like the nerves, discs, bones, and joints, would have to be put through intolerable positions (to most except contortionists) in order to achieve this. In essence, these tissues would break before the muscle could be sufficiently lengthened. Also, a 2010 review in Physical Therapy (Weppler and Magnusson) questioned if stretching any muscle could actually lengthen a muscle, reporting that there’s no proof of muscle tissue actually lengthening. Sure Range of motion improves, but this may be due to neurological and non-contractile tissue changes.
3. More range of motion correlates to more low back pain
In rehab, we are encouraged to report increases in range of motion to indicate improvements that will lead to increased function. But research shows that increased range of motion isn’t a good thing when it comes to joint instability, spine function, and preventing pain. Battie, eta al 1990, Biering-Sorenson 1984, and Burton, et al 1989 all found that those with increased range of motion had a higher risk of future low back pain.
4. Lengthened ligaments = instability.
Related to the above, stretching can cause ligaments to lengthen. Ligaments, unlike muscles, have limited elasticity, so that when they lengthen under prolonged stress (which we know they do), they will be permanently lengthened. You can compare this to stretching taffy. This contributes to joint instability, as ligaments often help maintain stability of the joint.
5. Stretch positions are the same that cause disc herniation.
Ask someone how they “blew out” their back, at it almost always involves some form of bending and/or twisting. Ask someone how to stretch their spine…same thing, bending and twisting. That’s like repeatedly twisting your ankle after you just sprained it. It doesn’t make sense. Also, disc fibers reach their maximal lengthening point after 3 degrees of motion. Given that we have 5 lumbar discs, that means we have only 15 degree in total that we can work with after damage will occur. This should make you rethink doing the twisting oblige exercises, I hope.
The Russian twist puts a lot of stress on the spine
6. The bones are not made for a high degree of movement.
The facet joints of the spine are aligned parallel and facing each other, like a referees hands after signaling touchdown. This orientation does not allow lumbar spinal rotation. Contrast that to the facet alignment of the neck, where the facets are oriented parallel to the floor, thus allowing a high degree of rotation. Twisting the lumbar spine beyond a small range of motion goes against our anatomy
7. Nerves do not like to be stressed.
Muscles can take a huge amount of stress, but nerves are much more sensitive, especially those that are injured. The sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body and often related to spine issues, spans from the leg up the thigh and into nerve roots leading to the spinal column, and up to the head. When bending the spine and hip more than just the muscles are involved, the nerves are often under stress from the head to the foot. Healthy nerves can usually take this stress, although less so than muscles. However, irritable nerves recovering from injury or inflammation will be very intolerant to stretch. Some confuse the sensation of an irritable nerve as tightness, and thus stretch the muscle, ironically further irritating the nerve. This provokes the muscle, especially the hamstrings, to get tighter and tighter to protect the irritable nerve. This could at least partially explain the cases involving folks with chronic hamstring tightness that never seems to go away
Stretching the hamstrings the wrong way puts a lot of pressure on your low back and sciatic nerve
Hopefully this arms you with some knowledge on how you can manage your low back health much better, instead of possibly adding more undue stress by stretching it.
If you have any questions or need any help managing low back pain, let us know.