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Got a Tight Lower Back? Here’s How to Feel Better, According to Physical Therapists

Learn common causes of a tight lower back and how to prevent and relieve it, especially with exercises from Hinge Health physical therapists.

Published Date: Dec 7, 2023
woman-working-grabbing-her-back

If you’ve been sitting at a desk for a long time or, perhaps, spent the afternoon doing yard work, you might notice your lower back beginning to feel tight. Some people experience a tight lower back as a sensation of stiffness, while others experience low back pain they describe as a persistent, dull ache or crampy feeling.  In any case, a tight lower back can impact your mobility, making it more challenging to bend over, sit, sleep, and exercise. While low back tightness can be discouraging, and you may feel hesitant about movement, staying active is generally a good idea.

Christine Dang, PT, DPT
People with a tight lower back may be nervous to move because of the stiffness, but we actually recommend movement to help relieve the symptoms.

In fact, Hinge Health members frequently report that their daily stretches and exercises help manage tight lower back symptoms and improve functioning. “During runs, I feel less back tightness and, when waking up, I can bounce right out of bed and don’t feel sore,” one member says. “Overall, I haven’t had the chronic lower back pain I used to have.”

Read on to learn more about what causes a tight lower back, along with how to treat it — especially with exercises recommended by our Hinge Health physical therapists. 

Our Hinge Health Experts

Christine Dang, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Dang is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with a special interest in helping mountain athletes.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is a Tight Low Back?

Tightness is a sensation you feel in your muscles. It can lead to stiffness (limited mobility) and pain. Your lumbar spine, also called your lower back, is made up of numerous muscles, ligaments, and tissues. It can tense up from time to time. This can be related to periods of inactivity, or too much strenuous activity, or sometimes happens for seemingly no reason at all. 

A tight lower back is a very common, albeit frustrating, experience. When your back muscles are tight, it may be hard to move around like you’re used to, says Dr. Dang. Bending over to reach for something or holding your back in a certain position — for example, sitting — may start to feel difficult or even painful. 

Fortunately, many cases of lower back stiffness resolve on their own, especially with physical activity.

Symptoms of a Tight Lower Back

Everyone is unique, so how you experience a tight lower back may be different from the next person. In general, though, a tight lower back can lead to several different symptoms, including: 

  • A general feeling of stiffness. You may feel like your low back is stiff and it’s hard to move around. It may hurt to straighten or twist your back or bend over.

  • A dull ache. With the tension, you may experience a persistent dull ache in your low back.

  • Muscle spasms. You may notice your low back muscles tightening or contracting, especially when you bend over. Spasms can range from mildly uncomfortable to painful. 

While a tight lower back can be uncomfortable and frustrating, there’s a lot you can do to soothe back pain, ease flare-ups, and prevent it from coming back.

Common Causes

Lower back tightness can be related to several different issues. Many times, people can't point to a specific trigger; tightness is so common that it can happen without an obvious cause. And, in most cases, the tightness you’re experiencing doesn't mean something is wrong with your body or that you’re damaged somehow. “Instead, a tight lower back is your body’s way of telling you it needs something different,” says Dr. Dang.

The most common factors that can affect a tight lower back include: 

  • Not enough activity. If you’re not using your low back muscles frequently — for example, if you sit at a desk for work most of the day — you may notice this area start to tense up. “It’s essentially your body’s way of telling you it wants more movement,” says Dr. Dang. 

  • Tensing up too often. It’s natural to want to tense your back and core as a protective way to brace for pain. But research shows that people with back pain tend to overtense their back and core muscles, which actually makes the pain worse. Overtensing can cause muscle fatigue and put pressure on sensitive structures in the back.

  • Asking your body to do too much. Doing more than your body is ready for can cause your low back muscles to tighten up. You might feel low back tightness if you spent all day doing chores without a break or pushed yourself too hard during a workout. In this case, it’s helpful to listen to your body and potentially modify activities.

  • An acute injury. Sometimes, trauma to the lower back can result in tight muscles. For example, a low back strain — or stretching a muscle too far and causing a micro-tear — may lead to stiffness and pain in the area.

  • Osteoarthritis. As you age, it’s totally normal for your joints to change. Over time, this can result in a feeling of tension in the affected area, including your lower back. 

Treatment Options for Lower Back Tightness

The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can provide relief for a tight lower back. 

  • Ice or heat. Applying either ice or heat can help you manage low back stiffness. Ice is known to improve swelling and inflammation, while heat can help relax muscles. Whichever one feels better to you is okay to try, says Dr. Dang.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for back pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

  • Physical activity. Movement and exercises, like the ones below, may feel counterintuitive if your back is stiff, but Dr. Dang emphasizes exercise as an important part of improving your symptoms. “If you’re working a desk job, I recommend getting up from your chair to do simple exercises about once an hour,” she says.

  • Modifying activity as needed. If you suspect your low back tightness happened due to overexertion, it may be a good idea to re-evaluate your routines. “That could mean running less distance or on different terrain, or spreading out lifting exercises that work your low back,” says Dr. Dang. If you’re one to tense up in response to low back pain, stretches that relax tight core and back muscles will also be beneficial. 

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Exercises to Help Relieve a Tight Lower Back

Physical therapy exercises that gently stretch and strengthen muscles in your lumbar spine can be effective in managing low back tightness. The above exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great place to start. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Listen to Your Body 

When it comes to relieving low back pain, tune into your body. “You may feel like it’s a good idea to stop all activities, but usually complete rest isn’t indicated for low back tightness,” says Dr. Dang. “Instead, find ways to move within your comfort zone, and gently increase activity each day.” 

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Goode, A. P., Carey, T. S., & Jordan, J. M. (2013). Low Back Pain and Lumbar Spine Osteoarthritis: How Are They Related? Current Rheumatology Reports, 15(2). doi:10.1007/s11926-012-0305-z

  2. Mauck, M. C., Aylward, A. F., Barton, C. E., Birckhead, B., Carey, T., Dalton, D. M., Fields, A. J., Fritz, J., Hassett, A. L., Hoffmeyer, A., Jones, S. B., McLean, S. A., Mehling, W. E., O’Neill, C. W., Schneider, M. J., Williams, D. A., Zheng, P., & Wasan, A. D. (2022). Evidence-based interventions to treat chronic low back pain: treatment selection for a personalized medicine approach. Pain Reports, 7(5), e1019. doi:10.1097/pr9.0000000000001019

  3. Shiri, R., Coggon, D., & Falah-Hassani, K. (2017). Exercise for the Prevention of Low Back Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. American Journal of Epidemiology, 187(5), 1093–1101. doi:10.1093/aje/kwx337