7 Soothing Moves to Ease Back Pain
Back pain and stiffness are a given if you have ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a form of chronic inflammatory arthritis. The Spondylitis Association of America (SAA) recommends incorporating low-impact cardio, strengthening, and balance into a well-rounded exercise plan to help relieve these symptoms, but you’re not alone if you struggle to fit it into your day consistently. We picked these seven exercises, which focus on range of motion and stretching, to make it easier. P.S. Check with your medical provider before trying new movements and stop if something causes pain.
Stretch With Care
These seven exercises integrate stretching, which helps with flexibility and range of motion, but be careful not to overdo it. Andrew Lui, D.P.T., a health sciences clinical professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of California, San Francisco, offers these suggestions:
- Warm up with a brisk walk.
- Stretch to the point of tightness. Back off if you feel pain.
- When you encounter a tight spot, take deep, slow breaths as you envision the tightness easing.
Work Break: Shoulder Circles
Hunching over your desk tightens muscles surrounding the shoulders, contributing to the “slumped” posture common with AS. Backward shoulder circles help counteract the effects of slouching.
Make the move: Stand with arms by your sides. Inhale while you drop your shoulders down and roll them forward; exhale as you lift them up and roll them back. Strive for a full range of motion. Repeat several times.
Reap the rewards: The circular motion activates and elongates muscles around the shoulders, releasing tightness that can hinder good posture.
Work Break: Upright Twists
Spinal twists can reduce classic AS back stiffness.
Make the move: Place your hands on your hips. Gently rotate your torso to the right and look over your right shoulder. Keep your knees and feet facing forward. Pause when you feel resistance. Take several deep breaths while continuing to very gently twist—do not force the motion. Rotate back to starting position. Repeat several times on each side.
Reap the rewards: Twists activate and strengthen abdominal and spinal muscles, increase spinal range of motion, and reduce back stiffness.
Work Break: “Clock” Side Stretches
Side stretches engage abdominal and spinal muscles on one side, while stretching them on the other.
Make the move: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Put a hand on one hip. Straighten the other arm and circle it down, out to the side, and overhead, like the hand of a clock. Continue the circle as you bend at the waist to the other side. Keep your hips and torso facing forward, like a clock face. When you feel a stretch, hold and take a few deep breaths. Repeat several times on each side.
Reap the rewards: Side stretches reduce stiffness in the back and sacroiliac joint, a common AS problem.
Floor Routine: “Bird Dog”
Claim some floorspace for the sequence on the next four slides. First warm up with “bird dog.”
Make the move: On hands and knees:
- Reach one arm out in front of you, parallel to the floor, hold for five seconds, lower. Do five times with each arm. Repeat sequence with each leg.
- Reach an opposite arm and leg out at the same time, parallel to the floor, hold for five, lower. Repeat on the other side. Do five sets.
Reap the rewards: Bird dog strengthens muscles around the spine that help with posture.
Floor Routine: Cat-Cow
After you’ve warmed up with bird dog (previous slide), alternate curving your spine between convex and concave with the yoga pose cat-cow.
Make the move: On hands and knees, take a deep breath in while arching your back, raising your gaze and your hips toward the ceiling. Slowly exhale while rounding your back toward the ceiling and dropping your head, like the curved end of a candy cane. Repeat several times.
Reap the rewards: Cat-cow activates and stretches abdominal and spinal extensor muscles. It also helps optimize your spine’s range of motion.
Floor Routine: Dynamic Bridge
This dynamic version of bridging—one of the most common exercises recommended for people with AS—adds arm movement with coordinated deep breaths.
Make the move: Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor near your hips. Simultaneously: Slowly inhale, lift hips up, and raise straight arms over your head until they touch the floor. Reverse the motion: Slowly exhale, lower your hips, and circle your arms back by your side. Repeat several times.
Reap the rewards: Bridging helps improve back flexibility, range of motion, and strength. A dynamic bridge adds similar shoulder benefits.
Floor Routine: Child’s Pose
End the four-move sequence (see previous slides) with a child’s pose, a restful position with healing benefits.
Make the move: Kneel then sit on your heels, tops of feet on the floor. Reach straight arms out in front of you on the floor; place your head between them. If your butt doesn’t reach your heels, or your head doesn’t reach the floor, fill the space with a pillow or folded blanket. Take 10 deep breaths.
Reap the rewards: Child’s pose stretches spinal, hip extensor, and shoulder muscles, and reduces stiffness. “For those with AS and shoulder area tightness and stiffness, child’s pose is especially helpful,” says Lui.
Aim for Consistency
Consistent exercise is key to minimizing back pain and stiffness caused by ankylosing spondylitis (AS). These routines are designed to give you easy options to fit into your day. They each start with active motion to warm you up before moving to stretches to increase and maintain flexibility and range of motion. Coordinating the moves with deep breathing helps release muscle tension. For more inspiration, check out:
AS Exercise Videos: The Spondylitis Association of America. (n.d.) “SAA’s Newest Exercise Video.” spondylitis.org/resources-support/educational-materials-resources/back-in-action-again/
AS Exercise Video: Barts Health NHS Trust. (2015.) “Axial Spondyloarthritis Exercises for Patients.” youtube.com/watch?v=pbn5kXq75Xc
Short Videos with Stretches: National Axial Spondyloarthritis Society. (n.d.) “Stretches for Your Daily Life.” nass.co.uk/managing-my-as/exercise/stretches-for-your-daily-life/
Illustrated AS Exercises: The Spondylitis Association of America. (2020.) “Sample Spondyloarthritis Exercise Program.” spondylitis.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/SAA_Exercise_Flyer_FINAL.pdf
Exercise Brochure: The Spondylitis Association of America. (2020.) “The Role of Exercise in Spondyloarthritis.” spondylitis.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/brochure-the-role-of-exercise.pdf
AS Exercises: Medical News Today. (2020). “Exercises and Postures for Ankylosing Spondylitis.” medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317854#exercises
AS Exercise Resources: The Spondylitis Association of America. (n.d.) “Exercise.” spondylitis.org/about-spondylitis/treatment-information/exercise/
AS Exercise Resources: National Axial Spondyloarthritis Society. (2021.) “Exercise.” nass.co.uk/managing-my-as/exercise/
Disease-Specific Exercise Suggestions: UpToDate. (2020.) “Patient Education: Arthritis and Exercise (Beyond the Basics).” uptodate.com/contents/arthritis-and-exercise-beyond-the-basics
Overview and Treatment: UpToDate. (2020.) “Patient Education: Axial Spondyloarthritis, Including Ankylosing Spondylitis (Beyond the Basics).” uptodate.com/contents/axial-spondyloarthritis-including-ankylosing-spondylitis-beyond-the-basics
Research Overview: International Journal of Sports Medicine. (2001.) “The Role of Exercise in the Rehabilitation of Ankylosing Spondylitis.” researchgate.net/publication/257231719_The_role_of_exercise_in_the_rehabilitation_of_ankylosing_spondylitis