Should You Use a Back Stretcher? What Experts Say
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Back stretching devices aren't just a form of modern snake oil—they really can help improve back pain, range of motion, and spine health.
Do back stretchers work?
Back pain, discomfort, and tightness are (unfortunately) as common as the common cold.
In fact, an estimated 31 million Americans experience back pain at any given time, according to the American Chiropractic Association.
So it makes sense that an entire industry of health gurus, products, and services help reduce or eliminate pain.
Unfortunately, amongst the well-meaning, science-driven helpers, there are just as many users and abusers looking to sell unnecessary products and services to hurting consumers looking for solutions.
So how can you really know if a back stretcher device or tool will deliver the relief you’re looking for?
In a world of slick marketing slogans and fake product reviews, the answer typically comes down to scientific research and expert opinions. Here’s what you need to know before laying out your cash.
(Have lower back pain? These stretches may help.)
Yes, back stretchers can help
Most back stretchers provide an arched surface on which to lie, supporting your spine as you move to a range of motion that you might not achieve while performing your own stretches.
Essentially, they allow you to hold a stretch more passively than performing your own stretching routine.
For individuals with tightness or pain, a supported stretch may be more accessible, especially if it starts with a small range of motion that can be gradually increased over time.
(Try these stretches to help with upper back pain.)
And here’s the good news: experts agree that back stretchers aren’t just a modern-day “snake oil” product.
In fact, the right back stretcher may help improve range of motion and alleviate discomfort. The key word being the right back stretcher.
“Back stretching devices help to stretch the back, and if done properly and safely, can ultimately help decompress the spine leading to an improvement in posture and overall health,” says Todd Sinett, a chiropractor and founder of Tru Whole Care in New York.
But he cautions that any back stretchers that are “too aggressive, too small, too hard, or improperly used” can cause complications, although this depends on the user as much as the product itself.
The important thing to remember is that maintaining range of motion at all of your joints is exactly what keeps them healthy.
And a lifestyle with long periods of sitting, slouching, or performing repetitive movements can cause muscle imbalances that affect range of motion. To improve or maintain range of motion, you have to focus on movement.
“Maintaining the range of motion for your spine is very important. This helps keep your joints healthy, can improve breathing, and help avoid future injuries,” says chiropractor Kevin Lees, manager of auditing and quality at The Joint Chiropractic.
“Nutrition for your joints is drawn in through motion, using a back stretcher helps increase that range of motion and may help improve stiffness and achiness in spinal joints.”
(Try a cobra stretch to help strengthen and stretch your spine.)
Identifying a good back stretcher is key
There are lots of back stretching devices on the market. Some are marketed as “back stretchers,” while others do the job without affixing that exact title to the tool.
Case in point—yoga wheels may not offer enough support or place too much pressure on the spine, while stability balls may require a level of balance that exceeds your current ability.
If you’re seeking out a back stretcher due to tightness, discomfort, or pain, it’s important to identify tools that can “meet you where you’re at,” so to speak.
“Make sure the product is multi-dimensional, offering progressive extension, not a static stretch over and over,” says Sinett.
“It should be safe and a soft structure. Many products are one-dimensional. Back stretching should be progressive—it should start at one level and progress as your posture and stretching improves.”
In fact, you may not even need to purchase a back stretcher. Sinett points out that stretchers can even include rolled-up towels or cushions similar to yoga bolsters, providing a soft and supportive arch on which to lie.
You can work with a towel rolled to a comfortable height, and add towels (or switch to a larger cushion) as your range of motion improves.
If you do decide to purchase a stretcher, look for the specifics that Sinett suggests:
- You can adjust the level of stretch.
- It offers a soft support (like foam or padding).
- It fully supports the spine, increasing its safety for all users.
“A safe back stretcher should be able to be used by all shapes and sizes, not just elite athletes or yogis,” Sinett emphasizes.
(Give these home remedies a try when you have back pain.)
How to make the most out of a back stretcher
Once you’ve purchased or otherwise employed a back stretching device, don’t let it sit in a corner, gathering dust. To see the benefits of your back stretcher, you have to put it to use. Regularly.
“You brush and floss your teeth every day for healthy gums and teeth, right?” Sinett asks. “We spend our days hunched over computers and phones—we need to counterbalance our hunch!”
As such, you should be stretching your back every day if you want to improve or maintain your spine’s health.
Also, it’s important to approach any new activity with care, especially if you’re experiencing back pain.
“When you’re in pain, your body may be guarded against certain ranges of motion,” says Lees.
“Using your body weight to stretch, such as lying on an arch, may surpass these ranges and cause cramping or sharp pains.”
If you’re feeling any sharp pains or if you’re having trouble moving into the stretch, consider backing off from the exercise and trying again when you’re in less pain. Pushing through pain could exacerbate the problem.
Finally, it’s important to approach back stretching just as you would any other type of stretching workout. “Stretching is best when you’re feeling good and warmed up,” says Lees.
You should try doing light activity, like five minutes of walking, before you start stretching to increase blood flow and muscle pliability to allow for better range of motion.
(These yoga poses could help relieve back pain.)
Back stretcher options
Of course, there are hundreds of back stretchers on the market, making it hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. Consider the following, highly-rated products that meet the guidelines suggested by Sinett.
Multi-level back stretcher device
This back stretcher from Magic Back Support offers three different settings to help you increase your range of motion gradually.
It also comes with a memory foam cushion to offer support and protection for the spine. You can use it for the upper or lower back and use it as lumbar support when sitting in a chair.
Magic Back Support
With more than 11,000 reviews averaging a 4.2-star rating on Amazon, the Magic Back Support device is one of the hottest back stretchers you can find.
Like the multi-level back stretcher, it offers three different levels of stretch adjustment and has a foam pad situated where you center your spine.
Unlike the multi-level back stretcher, it doesn’t offer an additional memory foam pad, but instead provides nubby “massagers” that press into the muscles along your spine.
UpCircleSeven Yoga Wheel Set
If you’re a regular yogi or you tend to prioritize daily activity and feel comfortable using a slightly more “advanced” back stretcher, consider the UpCircleSeven Yoga Wheel Set. This set comes with three different sized yoga wheels, allowing for different levels of range of motion and support.
Each wheel features thick padding for comfort, and when you’re not using the wheels for stretching, you can use them to assist with yoga poses, to massage different muscle groups, or as a back support while sitting in a chair.
Next, check out the best desk chairs for back pain.