Yoga for Back Pain: Yoga Poses and Stretches to Relieve Pain

Article by Lucas Rockwood
March 18, 2022

Back pain affects an estimated 80 percent of the population at some point in life and remains the leading cause of work disability worldwide. Despite billions of dollars and an entire industry of back pain specialists, very little progress has been made to help people find back pain relief.

Why is Back Pain So Hard to Fix?

  • The spine is huge so problems might involve bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, nerves, connective tissues, or any combination of these.
  • Subclinical back injuries are extremely common, so you might have life altering pain in your lower spine, shoulders, or other area connected to your back with no clear idea what to do about it.
  • Surgery options are everywhere but the success rates are very low and don't always reduce your experience of low back pain.
  • Medical professionals and sufferers often focus on short term pain relief, not long-term healing.
  • Healing protocols range from simple stretches and diet changes to complex and costly physical therapy routines, but since there is no real consensus on what is best to relieve lower back pain, people often do nothing and keep suffering from their medical condition.

Can yoga alleviate back pain? Yes, yoga can be one of the best ways to relieve back pain and improve your health. A comprehensive yoga practice includes strength, flexibility, stretching, and balancing poses, making it a great choice for selfcare and a balanced body. If you have chronic lower back pain, especially in your spine, it’s always important to start any movement program slowly and carefully, using your own pain signals as a guide for your limits. When you exercise or do yoga to treat your lower back pain, start slowly and pay attention to how you feel while doing each pose. If pain increases while you are doing a pose, you should stop doing the pose. If you don't experience additional pain, you can keep doing the pose to strengthen your body and lower back muscles.

One of the most common mistakes when treating back pain is to throw just one solution at the problem: strength training, stretching, balancing exercises, medication postures, or surgery. While some or all options might be helpful, it’s unlikely that just one of these, all on its own, will solve the problem and reduce chronic back pain. Everyone's body is different, so it's important to try different treatments and find what works best for your chronic low back pain.

Rethink Your Relationship with Pain

Our bodies and nervous systems have adapted over millions of years to optimize for our survival. Nociception, the ability to feel pain, is part of our genetic heritage. Pain is a feature, not a bug, of our human experience. Pain can help us identify when something is wrong with our body and moves us towards getting the help our body needs, allowing us to get back outside doing the things we love.

When you place your hand on a hot stove and recoil in pain, that is an adaptive response. When you herniate a lumbar disc and experience shooting pain every time you turn or bend over, that too is your body’s intelligence giving you a very clear signal to slow down, take care of your body, and get help. Pain in the lower back feels irritating, but it's a signal that your body needs help.

On your healing journey, I’d encourage you to rethink your relationship with pain and your health. You don’t need to become a masochist, but you do need to listen to what your body is telling you; and remember, if any exercise or yoga pose increases your pain, you must assume it’s counterproductive and figure out a way to modify, reduce the intensity, or skip the poses altogether. Poses and stretches may need to be adapted to your yoga capabilities.

Pointer poses is excellent for balancing and stabilizing the spine

Lower Back Pain

The majority of pain problems originate in the lower back, specifically the spinal cord's lumbar vertebrae four and five, sacral vertebrae one, and the sacroiliac joint itself. The lower spinal cord is a hot spot for injury mostly because of its anatomy and position in the body. At the base of the spine, there is more weight and pressure combined with the leverage of your upper body, which can cause back aches. Below are the most common low back pain conditions.

  • Disc Bulge or Herniation

    A disc bulge refers to the annulus fibrosis, the outer ring, of the disc protruding to the left and right sides. A herniation refers to the nucleus pulposus partially or completely extruding through that outer annulus fibrosis ring. Herniations tend to be unilateral and posterior (to the back and off to one the left or right side of the spine). Both bulges or herniations can press on the nerves in your spine and cause pain, and as the region becomes inflamed, further nerve impingement and increased pain are common.

  • Muscle Strain

    Just as you can pull a hamstring, you can also strain the muscles that support your spine. Your quadratus lumborum, erector spinae, and other supportive muscles can become overworked or overstretched, leading to micro or macro damage, inflammation, and pain. If you strain your muscles, you will feel lower back pain.

  • Ligament Sprain

    The spine itself is wrapped on all sides by ligaments, bone-to-bone connective tissues, that can become damaged or even torn.

  • Sacroiliac Joint Injury

    Your SI joint is the bony plate on the back of your pelvis. When things are in order, the joint is mostly fixed, with a tiny range of motion of just 2-4 mm. Think of your SI joint like a closed door that wiggles a little but is firmly supported by the door frame. When your SI joint gets injured, it’s as if a closed door is kicked off its hinges and pulled away from the frame. The extra mobilization causes pain, tissue damage, and inflammation.

  • Sciatica

    The sciatic nerves branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg. This nerve can become impinged from injuries in the lower back, the sacrum, or even muscular tension or inflammation in your backside.

Muscular Pain, Nerve, Ligament, or Disc Pain?

When you have a spinal injury, the first challenge is to try to determine what happened. Is it a disc compression? A muscle strain? Something else? MRI and CT scans might deliver answers in some cases; but often, the investigation is left up to the individual.

Muscular pain tends to be more intense while moving in specific ranges of motion, especially, lifting, bending, or hinging. Muscle pain will often be worse in the morning but quickly diminish with gentle movement such as stretches, yoga poses, or other forms of exercise.

Disc-related pain tends to be more consistent and persistent, regardless of how you are moving. Certain movements will often increase the intensity, like if you turn your body quickly, but the sensations of disc injuries are often very consistent throughout the day.

Nerve pain very often radiates from a hot spot region outward, for example, from your lower back to down the back of your leg, then through your knees or from your neck down your arm.

Many Causes, Same Approach

Many back problems involve multiple issues. A muscular injury might impinge upon a nerve, for example, or a disc-related injury might lead to locked up muscles in the region. While it’s very helpful to learn as much as you can about your body and your specific condition, it’s also important to remember that the path toward healing and a healthy back is pretty similar regardless of the cause. To heal your spine, you need to strengthen the supporting muscles, regain basic range of motion (bROM), and establish muscle balance.

Yoga & Sciatica?

The sciatic nerves branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each thigh. It runs to the left or right of or sometimes through the piriformis muscle, and it is often impinged due to lower back injury, piriformis syndrome, or acute trauma to the lower back region. Sciatic pain often radiates down one or both legs through the knees and sometimes can occur during pregnancy, hip replacements, or other changes in body weight.

If the pain is muscular, yoga will often have the most efficacy. If the pain is related to a chronic, degenerative lumbar spine issue, yoga might have limited effectiveness. As with all nerve pain issues, each individual will respond differently, and you need to use trial and error to determine what helps and what triggers pain.

Tight Hips & Back Pain

How are tight hips related to back pain? Hip mobility is determined by over 22 different muscles, but if we look at the three big movements of our hips – flexion, extension, and lateral rotation – poor mobility can immediately translate upstream to the lower back. If you lack hip extension, your tight psoas muscle can literally pull on the lower back in lunging positions. If you lack hip flexion, your back might excessively hunch in squats. If the lateral rotation in your hips is poor, your spine will compress when you sit on the floor with your legs crossed.

Heat & Ice for Back Pain?

If you apply heat to an affected area on your lower back, it can act as an analgesic (pain killer) and increase blood flow—but it can also increase inflammation. Ice can also work as a natural pain reliever, but it will reduce blood flow and inflammation. If you have a ligament or disc injury, it’s possible that heat treatments could help to bring surrounding fluids to the region to remove damaged tissues and heal your body. Since inflammation is associated with angiogenesis, it’s possible, the heat and subsequent inflammation could help reduce the pain.

While it’s possible that heat or ice might help at different stages of healing, in general, they should be thought of more for treating short term symptoms such as pain and inflammation.

Pain killers do need hasten healing, they simply relieve symptoms

Ibuprofen, NSAIDs & Back Pain

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduce inflammation and reduce pain very quickly. The mistake is to think that treating back pain medically aides in healing; in fact, there is back pain medically reviewed literature to suggest these drugs might slow or even inhibit healing in some cases. Remember, inflammation is your body’s healing response and leads to angiogenesis, so in many cases, if tolerable, it’s best to let your body run its healing processes. The best use of painkillers is to use as little as possible to treat symptoms. For example, if you’re unable to sleep due to discomfort or if inflammation is excessive, painkillers might help in the short term.

Cortisone Shot for Back Pain

Cortisone shots, or corticosteroids, are often used to treat acute pain symptoms—and they are very effective. Pain and inflammation can dramatically drop following an infection, unfortunately, reduced pain is not correlated with healing. Worse, since you’re unable to feel the imbalance that created the pain previously, it’s possible to celebrate your pain free post-cortisone shot by going right back to the movements and activities that created the health problems in the first place. There is a time and a place for cortisone shots but remember that this is primarily for temporary pain relief and should not be thought of as a long-term solution or medical cure.

Lower Back Stretches and Yoga

Yoga and other forms of exercise can be effective methods for treating lower back pain and restoring your health. Yoga positions, such as the extended puppy pose, can build the muscles in your back, stretch your spine, and reduce pain. They are positions that even yoga beginners can do. There are a wide variety of positions and stretches you can try. Each position is different and can help strengthen different parts of your spine, open the chest, strengthen your shoulders, and align your hips. Keep in mind that yoga stretches for your hips can also reduce low back pain. If you are new to yoga and are experiencing lower back pain, you should start with beginner yoga poses and lower back stretches to ensure that you don't overdo it and further injure your spine. You can find yoga courses online to help treat your back pain. Below are some yoga poses that you can start doing today to help strengthen your lower back and live a healthy lifestyle.

Happy Back Pose

Strength Pose - Block Squeeze
Flexibility Pose – Diagonal Lunge
Balance Pose – Pointer Pose

Traction Pose – Cliffhanger