Exercising Your Way Out of Back and Neck Pain

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Proper exercises help ease pain, and lessen recovery time

by Kristy Donnelly, D.C.

You may think that a mild-moderate injury and energy slump are reasons to avoid exercise, but it could be exactly what you need. Consult your physician if you have any questions before beginning an exercise routine because depending on your specific cause and intensity of pain, not all exercises are recommended. However, the proper stretches and exercises could help ease your back and neck pain while also increasing your circulation, strengthening your muscles and lessening your recovery time.


The first thing many people think of when they begin stretching is to do a “toe touch” which is unnecessary and potentially harmful to the discs in the lumbar spine. Anyone experiencing sciatica may feel an increase in symptoms. A great replacement for stretching tight hamstrings is done while laying on your back. This can be done on the floor or even on a bed while using a towel to pull one leg at a time towards your body. You should feel a gentle stretch in the back of your thigh.

Try this:

Dr. Donnelly with a patient doing leg stretches
Dr. Donnelly shows a patient the leg stretches

Instead of this:

toe touch exercise
Toe touch exercise

Another popular exercise which is often done incorrectly and can therefore be harmful is crunches. Many people place their hands behind their head and pull forward which places pressure on the neck. Instead of risking improper form, try doing planks which are a more effective core exercise. Your weight is all on your elbows and toes while your spine creates a solid line from your neck to your pelvis.

Try this:

planking exercise

Instead of this:

crunch exercise
Core strengthening exercises

A few more exercises that are designed to strengthen your core and are likely to relieve back pain include bird dog, bridges, wall squats, back extensions and light aerobic exercises.

Bird Dog: For beginners, this can be done against a wall to help you avoid leaning to one side or the other. Your knees should be hip width apart and your hands should be shoulder width apart. You can also place something on your lower back to ensure your back is parallel to the floor at all times. When done properly, your opposite arm and leg should be extended simultaneously but if this is too difficult, you can keep your hands on the floor and only extend one leg at a time until you feel comfortable enough to add your arm at the same time while making sure your stomach doesn’t sag.

Bird dog
Bird dog

Bridges: Begin on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Then push your feet into the floor and lift your hips. Your shoulders, hips and knees should all be in a straight line. While in this position, contract your lower back muscles and hold it for approximately 5-10 seconds. Once this move becomes easy, you can make it more difficult by only keeping one foot on the floor and putting your other foot on the opposite knee, making sure to still keep both hips level.

Bridges Bridges

Wall Squats: Standing 10-12 inches away from a wall and your feet hip width apart, lean back until your back is completely against the wall. Then slide down until your knees form a 90⁰ angle and your thighs are parallel with the floor. Hold for 10 seconds or longer if possible and carefully slide back up the wall. Rest for 30 seconds between each set and try to hold the squat longer each time. As this becomes easier, you increase the difficulty level by also extending your arms in front of you.

Dr. Donnelly shows a patient how to do wall squats

Back Extensions: To start this move, lay flat on your stomach with your arms and legs extended. Beginners may want to only extend their upper body until the shoulders and chest are off the floor. Once you have mastered this, try extending your arms and legs at the same time while contracting your back muscles and holding it as long as you can. Also in this position, you can do “stationary swimming” which just involves moving your arms and legs up and down like you are swimming. These work all of your back muscles as well as your gluteus maximus and hamstrings.

Dr. Donnelly's patient does the back extension Dr-Donnelly-patient-back-extension-absolute-injury2
Back extensions

exercise to ease painAerobic Exercise: Even after some injuries, aerobic exercises may help you recover faster. When done properly, cardiovascular activity strengthens your heart and lungs, increases circulation and energy levels, and can lead to fat loss. Walking, swimming, using an elliptical machine, lifting weights and even many group exercise classes can reduce back pain, neck pain and headaches.

Ask your doctor which exercises and movements to avoid. We would love to help you get started today!

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Dr. Kristy Donnelly

Author: Dr. Kristy Donnelly

Kristy Donnelly, D.C. is not just a Chiropractic Physician, but also a certified nutrition coach, and personal trainer, thus providing a well-rounded approach to patient care. She taught Anatomy at Florida State College in Jacksonville, and fitness classes in college.

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