Performing Stretches and Exercises With Acute Back Pain

Let's face it, tight muscles likely contribute greatly to your neck and/or back pain. They may even be the cause of your long-term problem entirely. If you've seen a physical therapist for your spine, chances are she has given you some back exercises to do.

Women in supine position stretch one knee towards the chest
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But what if you're experiencing an acute back injury or your old injury is acting up? Should you stretch? Should you do back injury exercises at all?

Activities to Avoid

In general, you shouldn't stretch an inflamed area.

During the acute phase of a back injury (about the first 24 to 48 hours,) your tissues are vulnerable to stresses placed on them. Stretching at this time can further damage your back.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine recommends stopping normal physical activity for the first few days after a low back injury to help reduce swelling associated with the inflammation and to reduce pain. During this time you can apply ice and/or heat to the painful area, as well as take over the counter pain medication such as Advil, Tylenol or something similar.

But you don't need to remain off your feet for very long. Bed rest is no longer recommended as a way to heal a back injury. As long as you don't have serious symptoms such as loss of bowel or bladder control, weakness, pain and/or electrical sensations that go down one leg or arm, weight loss or fever, then being active within pain-free limits is recommended by experts.

If you believe stretching an inflamed area makes you feel better, or you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, discuss with your healthcare provider as soon as you can.


Even though it's a good idea to be active is while you're in the healing phase of an injury, you may still need to adjust your intensity levels downward.  

Once you're back in the swing of your usual activity (which generally takes a few days to a few weeks post mild or moderate injury), it's important to be aware of how your body responds to what you do during the day. Remember, you're in a modified activity period while your back is mending.

One of the most helpful attitudes injured people can have (but also one of the most challenging to maintain) is to be willing to do less than you think you should. Overdoing it is the cause of many a back and neck re-injury. 

Another rule of thumb is "let your pain be your guide." If, as you're doing an exercise or some other type of movement, you encounter pain that's related to your injury, consider decreasing the intensity or forgoing the activity completely.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Medline Plus. Taking care of your back at home.

  2. NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low back pain fact sheet.

  3. Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Publishing. Stretching and strengthening are key to healing and preventing back pain.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.