The 5 Best Stretches for Back Pain, According to an Orthopedic Surgeon

When your back is bothering you, it can be tempting to lie still and watch Neflix until the pain subsides. But certain stretches can also work wonders in terms of alleviating pain and preventing future troubles. Here are the best ones to try, according to Callista Costopoulos Morris, DO, a sports orthopedic surgeon with the Geisinger Musculoskeletal Institute in Pennsylvania.

The 3 Best Yoga Poses for Back Pain (and the Ones You Should Avoid)

woman doing a hamstring stretch
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Hamstring Stretch 

How to do it: While sitting on the floor, place one leg straight out. Bend the other leg at the knee and position the sole of that foot against your opposite inner thigh (against the straight leg). Extend both arms and reach forward. You may only be able to touch your knee, but as time goes by work toward your foot. Hold for ten seconds and switch legs.

Why it works: “Hamstring tightness is one of the leading contributors to back pain, especially in the lower back,” says Costopoulos Morris. This stretch helps with hamstring flexibility, and shouldn’t just be used if you’re in pain. “You should include this move every time you stretch. Even if you don’t currently have back pain, it will help prevent issues down the road.”

woman in childs pose
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Child's Pose

How to do it: Kneel on the floor. Then, with your knees and legs together, transition to sitting on the back of your calves with the knees bent. If you can’t lower all the way to your calves, place a pillow between the back of your thighs and calves to lessen the pressure on your knees. Next, fold yourself over the front of your thighs, reaching out with your arms and lowering your head. The farther you reach, the more stretch you will feel.

Why it works: “This is a great way to stretch the small muscles in your back that connect your vertebral bodies (the larger bones that make up your spine),” Costopoulos Morris told us. “It also stretches out the space between the bones (facet joints or articulations) and allows your nerves to breathe.” Heads up, though: If you have a known herniated disc, you’re going to want to avoid this stretch unless your doctor says it’s OK. “[This] can cause the disc to push farther onto your affected nerves.”

woman stretching on her back
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Single Knee-to-chest Stretch

How to do it: Lie on your back with your legs straight and bend one knee. Pull the bent knee toward your chest and stomach. Hold your leg with both hands on your shin or the back of your thigh, whatever position is more comfortable, and continue to hold until you feel the stretch in your back. Hold for ten seconds, then switch legs.

Why it works: If child’s pose focuses on the back’s small muscles, this move isolates the larger muscles in your lower back. “It also helps stretch out your sacroiliac joint, located where your sacrum, or sit bone, connects with your pelvis,” adds Costopoulos Morris. “This joint, which connects your spine and back to your lower body, can become ‘stuck’ and cause low back pain.”

woman in cobra pose
AJ_Watt/getty images

Core Abdominal Stretch 

How to do it: Lie flat on your stomach. Then, press up on your elbows or all the way to your palms with your elbows slightly bent. You may only be able to go as high as your elbows, but that’s OK.

Why it works: “This move stretches your core muscles including your rectus abdominus and obliques,” per Costopoulos Morris. “These muscles are key to good workouts and the health of your lower back.” This stretch, the opposite of child’s pose, may need to be avoided if you have stenosis, “But you will feel better if you have a herniated disc, because the move takes pressure off the disc.”

woman stretching her leg across her body
Siri Stafford/getty images

Bent Knee Cross-body Stretch 

How to do it: Lie on your back and swing one leg over the other, rotating through your lower back. Place both arms out to the side for balance. Try to keep your shoulder blades on the floor as much as you can. Your upper torso should be resisting the rotation in the opposite direction. Hold for ten seconds, then switch sides.

Why it works: This move helps stretch muscles in your lower back and obliques. “Strengthening your core musculature is important to having a healthy back, while the move also helps stretch the bones in the lower back as well as your sacroiliac joint,” Costopoulos Morris stressed.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...