Back Pain

Updated 06 July 2015

Back pain? Try these exercises

We share a few tips to help prevent or relieve backache.


Here are some back-care tips to help prevent or relieve backache. Take note of the warning signs that things might not be as they should as far as your back is concerned.

Warning signs of back pain:

  • Pain in the back
  • Restriction of back movements
  • Back pain accompanied by numbness of one or both legs
  • Back pain radiating to the foot or knee
  • Dizziness or disturbance of vision related to neck posture
  • Difficulty standing up after sitting for prolonged periods
  • Back pain after standing for a prolonged period of time

NB: Back stresses build up whether or not you're in pain. It's important to go for a medical evaluation to identify any kind of spine damage, muscle strain or sprain.

Back-care tips
"Body mechanics” refer to how your body moves when performing activities. Avoid twisting the spine and getting into awkward positions for long periods of time. Awkward repetitive movements cause microtrauma to muscles, tendons and nerves, creating inflammation. A by-product of inflammation is scar tissue, which is the body’s way of repairing injuries, but can cause unhealthy posture.

1. Stretching
Regular exercise including strengthening, stretching and a cardiovascular programme are important to maintain your health and prevent injuries. Exercise improves posture, strength, endurance and flexibility and accelerates the flow of blood and nutrients to your muscles.

Take a stretch break
Easy exercises can prevent problems and allow your body to do the work you ask it to do. You can do these exercises anywhere throughout the day. The more often you do them, the better you will feel.

Stretching brings nutrients to your muscles and relieves tension. It increases the feeling of well-being and improves flexibility. When possible, take breaks and stretch whatever area feels tight. Stretch slowly without bouncing and gradually increase the stretch to your tolerance (you should not stretch into pain).

Strengthening keeps muscles strong and helps to prevent any future problems. After exercising, you should pay close attention to how your body feels, and ask your physiotherapist to explain anything you don’t understand. Awareness of your body’s pain signals can help to prevent injury as well as help recovery.

2. Exercise - an exercise a day helps keep back pain at bay
Exercise has been shown to help ease back pain and improve back function. Pains felt during or after exercise may lead people to limit or even discontinue doing their exercises, in spite of the known benefits of a consistent exercise programme. Ask your physiotherapist to show you an active stretching and exercise programme. Exercise programmes given with appropriate information can help sufferers of chronic back pain experience the benefits of ongoing exercise without adverse effects.

The following is a suggested list of helpful exercises that target several areas of the body. Modify each exercise to your comfort level and discontinue any exercise that makes you feel worse. These exercises are most effective when done several times throughout the day.

They make excellent stretch breaks at work.


  • Neck rotation: sit or stand up straight. Turn your head from side to side without moving your shoulders or upper back. Hold for 3-5 seconds, repeat 3-5 times on each side.
  • Shoulder rolls: move your shoulders up and backwards in a circle. Repeat 5-10 times.
  • Chin tucks: sit up tall and look straight ahead. Slowly tuck your chin in towards you (make a double chin). Hold for 5-10 seconds, then relax your chin.

Upper back:

  • Shoulder-blade pinch: keeping your arms along your sides, bend your elbows 90 degrees. Squeeze your shoulder blades together downwards and backwards. Don’t let your lower back arch or your head move forward. Hold 5-10 seconds, repeat 5-10 times.
  • Pectoral (chest) stretch: place one forearm against a wall or door. The elbow should be level with the shoulder. Turn your body away from your arm. You should feel a stretch at the front of your shoulder and into the chest. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat 1-2 times on each side.

Lower back:

  • Abdominal: sit with your buttocks against the back of a chair and tighten your abdominal muscles by pulling them toward your spine (flatten them and avoid pushing them outward). Keep your chest relaxed and continue to breathe normally while you hold the abdominals tight for 10 seconds. Repeat 5-10 times.
  • Lower back extension: stand up with your feet apart and place your palms on your lower back. Gently bend backwards, letting your back arch to a comfortable stretch. Pause 2-3 seconds, repeat 1-3 times.

3. Posture
Poor posture over time can lead to muscle imbalances, pain or discomfort. Slouching pulls the head forward, which can lead to neck and shoulder problems. Slouching also causes uneven compression on the spine, which can cause lower back pain. Becoming more aware of your posture is the first step in preventing injury and doing exercise is important for maintaining your posture. If you sit or stand for prolonged periods of time, analyse your work station or activity and reduce the strain on your body.

There are three natural curves in your spine. The neck (cervical spine) curves inward (lordosis), the mid-back (thoracic spine) curves outward (kyphosis) and the low back (lumbar spine) curves inward (lordosis). Your goal is to keep the three natural curves of your spine in their natural balanced alignment. Neutral spine is the position of greatest segmental balance and causes the least amount of stress and pain to the joints, ligaments and muscles.

Standing or sitting in balance means you’re working with gravity instead of against it. The muscles don’t have to work hard to maintain balance, therefore the body feels less fatigued and can work more efficiently. When you slouch, you cause unnecessary strain, which can lead to backache, stiffness and muscles fatigue.

Correct standing posture: your feet should be shoulder-width apart. Your weight should be evenly distributed over your heel and the ball of your foot. Keep your knees slightly relaxed, not locked. Shoulders should be straight, not rounded. Make sure your ears, shoulders and hips are in a straight line.

Reviewed by Dr Pradeep Makan, orthopaedic surgeon, Melomed Gatesville and Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town and part-time lecturer in the department of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Cape Town, 2010.


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Backache expert

Susan qualified as a Physiotherapist in 1990, and completed her master’s degree in Physiotherapy in 2013 at the University of Pretoria. She has a special interest in human biomechanics, as well as the interaction between domestic and work-related ergonomics.

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