It is a common belief that if your back is stiff and sore in the morning when you wake up, you should stretch it out. Unfortunately, this is not the best practice for some lower back injuries and can put you at risk to aggravate or hurt your back. Continue reading to see why I don’t recommend this type of stretching first thing in the morning.
Spinal discs swell overnight
In between the vertebrae in our spine is the intervertebral discs. These discs have a gel like nucleus in the middle and are surrounded by layers of fibrous rings. Simply put, the discs function as shock absorbers for the spine. They are also what we call Hydrophilic, meaning they absorb water. Overnight as we are sleeping, the discs absorb water so when we wake up in the morning the discs are as big as they are going to be during the day.
Spinal discs lose fluid when we get out of bed
As we get out of bed the downward pressure on the discs from body weight and gravity starts to force some of the fluid out of the discs. This is also why we are taller in the morning than in the afternoon.
The key point here is that the discs generally lose 90% of the fluid that they will lose over the course of the day within the first hour after rising from bed.
What does this have to do back pain?
Due to the nature or poor posture and the fact we all sit too much, etc, there is a reasonable percentage of people who have disc bulges (you can have disc bulges without pain). If your back pain is associated with a disc bulge then it makes sense that it may be worse in the morning as the discs are swollen.
Spine flexion (forward bending) movements can aggravate injuries
When we bend forward and round our lower back, it effectively can make the disc bulge worse and hence make lower back pain worse. If you combine rounding of the back first thing in the morning with the fact that discs are also bigger first thing in the morning, it stands to reason it could aggravate the back.
Wait an hour before doing stretches
According to Stuart McGill, a well-known researcher on lower back disorders, the best thing to do is to avoid spine bending movements during the first hour after getting out of bed. This will help avoid aggravating the back. After you have been up for an hour you can then do some stretches if needed or appropriate.
I am not saying to avoid all spine bending stretches, just first thing in the morning.
What can you do if your back is sore in the morning
I am a fan of using heat. When you wake up you can use your wheat bag or a hot shower to help loosen the muscles in the back. Apply heat for 20 minutes then leave off for a while before reapplying. Be careful of your movements during this first hour. Avoid heavy lifting if possible during this time as well. Once you have been up and about for a while, you can then incorporate some stretches and specific movements if required. I will write a blog post with more details on stretches and movements that I have found to be beneficial soon.
If you have a back problem and haven’t had it assessed by a health professional to see what the problem is and where it is coming from, then it will be worthwhile having an assessment. I am happy to talk to you about it, so feel free to contact me if required.
Whatever the cause of the problem, being aware of your movements first thing in the morning can help avoid injuries or at least aggravation of a current injury. Either way, your body will thank you for it.
- Stuart McGill, Low Back Disorders, 3rd edition, 2016
- Image: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19469.htm