Causes and Treatments for a Stiff Lower Back

Lower back pain is a common complaint among adults. In fact, studies show that about 80% of Americans have experienced it at least once during their lifetime. A stiff lower back can be frustrating and uncomfortable, making everyday tasks and movements as simple as bending down difficult.

If you are struggling with discomfort in the lower back, you may be wondering what you can do about it. The good news is there are many ways to effectively manage the stiffness and pain. In this article, we will go over some of the most common causes of a stiff lower back as well as various treatment options you can try for relief.

Causes of a Stiff Lower Back

The root of back stiffness will vary widely from person to person, ranging from injury or poor posture to more complicated issues, such as autoimmune disorders. Here are some of the most common underlying causes of a stiff lower back:

Lumbar Strain

Lumbar strain is the most prevalent reason for lower back pain. This term refers to an injury or tears to the tendons or muscles in the lower back that may result in spasms and soreness.

Activities involving pulling, pushing, and/or twisting are the typical sources of lumbar strain. Lifting heavy weight incorrectly, participating in sports such as football, tennis, basketball, baseball, or golf, and even sudden awkward movements can lead to this type of strain.

Poor Posture

You can develop pain in the lower back from standing or sitting with poor posture. Hunching over and leaning forward repetitively strains the spine, ultimately causing lower back stiffness. If poor posture is causing your discomfort, focus on keeping your core activated while sitting and standing to maintain a healthy position.

To combat slouching when sitting for long periods of time, try to avoid leaning on the backrest of your chair and use your core to keep yourself upright. If possible, you may want to consider alternating your work hours between an ergonomically-correct sitting desk and a standing desk. Changing positions will help support the overall spine and back health.

Herniated Disc

A herniated disc refers to the flattening and bulging or rupturing of the discs that sit between the vertebrae; this condition is sometimes also referred to as a bulged, slipped, or ruptured disc.

Herniation can be caused by disc degeneration, genetics, or a combination of the two. It may also be accompanied by numbness and/or weakness in one side of the body, usually in an arm or leg.

Tight Muscles in Thighs and Hips

Hamstrings and hip flexors are common culprits in back pain. When these large muscle groups become tight, they also become shorter—directly affecting the biomechanics and curvature of the lower spine.

Stretching these muscles regularly will help lengthen them and reduce lower back pain.

Arthritis in the Spine

Over time, wear-and-tear can cause the spine to change and become arthritic. Osteoarthritis, for example, is a disease in which the protective cartilage between the joints of the spine starts to break down. This causes friction with movement, leading to pain and stiffness.

Ankylosing Spondylitis is another type of arthritis characterized by inflammation in the spine that causes the fusion of adjacent vertebrae over time. The condition usually improves with exercise, but not rest.

Treatment for a Stiff Lower Back

Caring for a stiff lower back may include one or more of the following methods aimed at relieving discomfort, loosening the surrounding muscles, and relaxing the body.

  • Heat Therapy: The warmth of a hot compress will help ease pain by increasing blood flow and relaxing the muscles.
  • Cold Therapy: Ice packs are beneficial because the cold causes blood vessels to constrict. They also temporarily numb the pain and reduce overall inflammation.
  • Light Activity: Keeping active can be very helpful in overcoming back stiffness. Do not participate in activities that involve twisting of the back or lifting weight, however.
  • Stretches: Stretching exercises will help to gently strengthen the back as it heals and keeps it mobilized.
  • Massage: Massage relaxes muscle tissue, increases blood circulation, and may help some people to decrease stiffness and discomfort.
  • Physiotherapy: With the guidance of a trained physical therapist, physiotherapy helps to restore and maintain mobility through injury prevention methods and physical rehabilitation treatment. 
  • Over-The-Counter (OTC) Pain Relievers: We suggest talking with your doctor about the best OTC medications to address your pain, but common go-to’s include acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

Preventing Lower Back Pain

You may be wondering what you can do to mitigate the chances of experiencing lower back discomfort. Here are some precautions you can take to safeguard yourself:

Exercising Regularly

Maintaining a good, healthy physical condition will reduce the risk of injuring or tweaking your back by strengthening the muscles. Low impact exercises, such as swimming or walking, are an excellent choice because they are minimally stressful on the body’s muscles and joints.

Try to avoid intense activities as these can increase the likelihood of strain and cause pain if performed incorrectly. Weightlifting and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are examples of activities to stay away from.

Warming Up and Stretching

It is vital to warm-up prior to engaging in any physical activity. Doing so will prepare the body for exercise and help increase blood flow to the working muscle(s), therefore decreasing the chance of muscle stiffness afterward. Stretching or walking for a few minutes before your exercise regimen can go a long way in preventing injury and pain.

Sleeping on a Proper Mattress

The best mattresses for back pain support your spine while conforming to the body for pressure and pain relief. Using a mattress that adequately supports the spine can make a world of difference in how your back feels when you wake up. The recommended firmness level will vary based on your sleeping position.

  • Side Sleepers: Soft to medium mattresses are best because they provide relief and cushion for the body’s pressure points.
  • Back Sleepers: Medium to firm mattresses are ideal, as they will keep the spine in healthy, neutral alignment throughout the night.
  • Combination Sleepers: Medium mattresses work well because they strike a comfortable balance between cushion and support.
  • Stomach Sleepers: This position isn’t advised because it places a lot of pressure on the spine. However, if you must sleep on your belly, firm pressure is best to keep the spine in a neutral position. Placing a pillow between your legs can also help.

While there are many types of mattresses available, we recommend memory foam mattresses for back pain. Memory foam beds are highly rated by chronic pain sufferers for how they provide full-body support and pressure relief.

Maintaining Good Posture

While sitting, using a lumbar support and keeping your computer workstation at eye-level will help minimize the chances of posture-related back pain. When standing, aim to have the head, shoulders, hips, and knees lined up. This will help reduce the strain on your spine.

Wearing Supportive, Comfortable Shoes

A good pair of footwear will help support natural spine alignment, absorb shock while walking, and ultimately, prevent back pain. It is especially important to choose shoes wisely if your occupation requires you to stand during most of the day. Avoid high heeled and worn-out shoes and instead, opt for ones that fit well, support the ankles, and provide ergonomic cushioning.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I see a doctor about back pain?

If your back pain lasts for more than two consecutive weeks, this warrants a visit to the doctor. A physician may order magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, in order to identify the underlying cause or problem.

When back pain is accompanied by unusual symptoms such as blurred vision, fever, weak sensation in the legs, and/or loss of bladder function, it is imperative to seek medical help right away. These are serious indicators that you may be experiencing something dangerous.

How should I sleep with lower back pain?

There are a couple of different sleeping positions that are recommended when dealing with lower back pain. They are aimed at aligning the spine and reducing pressure on the hips and lower back.

  • On your side with a pillow between the knees
  • On your back with a pillow under your knees

How do I relieve a stiff lower back?

You can try one or a combination of the following techniques: Using a hot or cold pack on the stiff area, performing a gentle lower back stretch, using over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, getting a massage, and/or participating in light activity.

Is walking good for lower back pain?

Yes. Walking is an excellent way to relieve existing back pain and prevent future stiffness from happening. It is beneficial because it increases your lower back’s flexibility and strengthens the muscles surrounding your spine that support it.

You can begin with a short daily walk; 5 to 10 minutes is a good place to start. With time, you can gradually increase the duration. Remember to stand with the correct posture with the shoulders relaxed. If walking on concrete or pavement is painful, those suffering from lower back pain may get relief from walking in a pool instead.

You also burn calories walking for a mile or more, making it a good way to maintain a healthy weight.

Why do I wake up with a stiff lower back?

Lower back pain in the morning may indicate that there is an issue with your sleeping posture, mattress, and/or pillows. You may want to try a different sleep position to see if it helps. If the stiffness isn’t caused by your sleeping surface, it could be related to a medical condition such as lumbar strain, poor posture, a herniated disc, or changes to the spine over time.

Did We Help?

Lower back stiffness is uncomfortable, but it is prevalent and usually treatable. There are several methods you can use to tackle the discomfort and keep it from happening again in the future.

Implementing lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, sleeping on a supportive mattress, and using lumbar supports while working at a desk are good preventative steps to take. Whereas physiotherapy, stretching exercises, and using hot or cold packs are effective when treating the painful symptoms of a stiff lower back.

If you are experiencing chronic pain and/or any unusual symptoms in addition to lower back stiffness, it may be time to speak with a health care provider. Together, you can address the underlying cause and evaluate the different options available to manage the pain.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Michelle Zhang, Wellness Writer Michelle Zhang

Michelle Zhang is a regular contributor to our Zoma blog and is our go-to sleep researcher. In her time with Zoma, Michelle has researched and published many articles on widespread sleeping habits and troubles. In her time outside of Zoma, Michelle is an occupational therapist and long-distance runner. She believes leading a healthy lifestyle is the key to getting better sleep at night.

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