Managing Holiday Stress and Low Back Pain: 4 Simple Exercises to Do at Home
The holiday season is stressful enough without throwing an injury or low back pain into the mix. But for the estimated 85 percent of people who have experienced back pain severe enough to see a doctor—and the 25 percent reporting low back pain in the past 3 months—musculoskeletal conditions are an extra worry.
Here are a few ways you can prepare for the holiday, including four exercises for low back pain you can try at home.
Holiday Stress and Its Impact on Low Back Pain
Travel delays. Shopping headaches. Untangling holiday lights. All of these holiday stressors may lead to tension in the body, specifically in the muscles. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), muscle tension is “almost a reflex reaction to stress," and is the body's way of protecting itself from injury and pain.
Musculoskeletal pain—especially in the low back—has often been linked to stress. Often, one may be tempted to avoid exercise if experiencing stress-related low back pain for reasons such as fear of exacerbating old injuries or further damaging yourself. Over time, however, this lack of exercise can lead to deconditioned muscles which in turn can actually increase pain and risk for exacerbations.
The way an individual responds to chronic low back pain from musculoskeletal conditions makes the difference in their long-term wellness, says the APA. Maintaining a level of moderate, physician-supervised activity is key to preventing injury and managing pain. Also, a conservative approach tends to generate better outcomes than jumping to imaging, injections, and/or surgical procedures.
How to Find a Provider Who Treats Low Back Pain
If you're among those living with low back pain, finding a provider who treats it may be the best gift of the holiday season.
The following community-based providers offer pain management care and specialized therapy services:
- Massage therapists
- Physical therapists
- Occupational therapists
- Cognitive therapists
- Back and spine specialists.
Not sure how to find one of these specialists? Ask your primary care physician for their recommendations. You may even be able to secure a virtual care appointment with a provider who specializes in musculoskeletal conditions and may introduce more conservative and less invasive solutions to treat your low back pain.
Four Easy Exercises to Do at Home for Musculoskeletal Pain
Finding the right provider to treat musculoskeletal pain may take time, so what can be done to prevent injury and minimize pain during the stressful holiday season? Try these four simple exercises for low back pain you can do at home. As with any new exercise program, we recommend discussing them with your primary care physician or treating provider(s) first.
1. Lying Chest Opener
Did you know that by relaxing the chest muscles, you can improve back function and alleviate pain? This tip and trick from US News Health is based on this principle.
- Start by lying flat on a bench or other flat elevated surface.
- Bend your knees, keeping your feet on the bench and your back flat.
- From this position, let your arms fall at both sides, keeping them straight and with palms facing upwards.
- Let them hang there for about 30 seconds—or as long as it feels comfortable to do so.
This will give you a gentle stretch through your chest and allow for those muscles to relax, which in turn takes the pressure off your back.
2. Shoulder Blade Squeeze
This one is recommended by the Mayo Clinic.
- Start with being seated on an armless chair or stool.
- Maintain good posture, then pull your shoulder blades together.
- Hold that position for 5 seconds.
- Then relax and repeat, 3–5 times twice daily.
3. Knee-to-Chest Stretch
This is another stretch recommended by the Mayo Clinic. It assists with stretching the piriformis muscle, which runs from the back of the femur (thigh bone) to the sacrum (base of the spine).
- Lie flat on your back, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Use both of your hands to pull your knee up to your chest and press it there, with your ab muscles tightened and your spine pressed to the floor.
- Hold this position for 5 seconds.
- Go back to the original position, this time stretching the opposite leg.
- After that, go back to the starting position and repeat the stretch using both legs at once.
- Repeat 2–3 times, twice a day.
It's best if you can do this stretch once in the morning and again at night.
4. Cat-Cow Stretch
This simple and important stretch increases flexibility and eases tension in the lower back and core muscles. This stretch summary from Healthline highlights this concept.
- Start on your hands and knees.
- Cat Stretch: Arch your back by pulling your belly button up toward your spine, letting your head drop forward.
- Hold for 5–10 seconds. You should feel a gentle stretch in your lower back.
- Return to the starting position.
- Cow Stretch: Raise your head up and let your pelvis fall forward (curving your back down toward the floor).
- Hold for 5–10 seconds.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat 10–20 times, or as you are comfortably able to.
When performing these stretches, keep the following tips in mind:
- Move slowly into the stretch.
- Only stretch in a pain-free range of motion, never push into pain.
- Do not bounce while stretching, this can cause injury.
- Once in a comfortable stretch, take three deep breaths and then slowly move out of the stretch.
Managing Musculoskeletal Pain During the Holidays
Holiday stress may be unavoidable, but there are several ways to manage musculoskeletal pain and avoid injury during this busy season. The four exercises for low back pain above are a great start, but don't forget that physical therapists and other pain management providers stand ready to provide conservative and effective treatments.