Spinal Decompression Exercises

Each and every one of us, for the rest of our lives, will be engaged in the battle against gravity.  It is a constant force applied to us every single day.  Coupled with the hours we sit, the sports we play, and the unexpected trips and falls we might endure, this translates to massive compressive forces placed upon the spine.

To deal with this, the spine has ‘discs’ between each vertebra.  They are fluid-filled shock absorbers and prevent bone-on-bone friction.  Since they do not have a blood supply, nourishing the discs occurs via osmosis.  Movement throughout the spine is thus vital to preserve and feed these structures, so that the discs can prevent excessive wear and tear to the vertebral column.

Incidental spinal movements throughout the day create a physical pumping effort which shunts nutrient-bearing fluids in, and stale fluids out.  Well-hydrated discs become plump which gives better bony separation and ultimately renders the spine more able to accommodate compression, impact and jarring.

The force of gravity means the discs naturally lose fluid throughout the day – people can lose up to 2cm in height by the end of the day.  Sleeping horizontal at night allows the natural fluid exchange within the discs to be carried out – fresh nutrients are drawn in, whilst stale fluid is expelled.

Prolonged sitting is a risk factor for maintain healthy discs.  In the first two hours of sitting, one can lose up to 10% of intradiscal fluid. Slumped sitting is particularly bad for the discs, as is any low activity posture.

The majority of back pain that exists today, is often due to compressive forces applied to the spine. In the age of chronic sitting, performing spinal decompression exercises daily may serve the overwhelming majority of back pain sufferers.

Using a back block is an easy and effective way to perform spinal decompression.  Lying backwards passively over a block exerts lumbar traction and both stretches the compressed disc wall and passively elongates tight local muscles and ligaments that have tethered and contracted the spine down.  This method works by stimulating pressure changes within the intervertebral discs by alternately loading and unloading the discs within their physiological range.  The physical separation of the spinal segments also counters the fluid loss and the slow deflation of the discs.

Using the back block

  1. Lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are touching the floor.
  2. Lift your backside off the floor and slide the block, on its flattest edge, to rest lengthways under your sacrum (the hard flat bone at the base of your spine).
  3. Straighten your arms above your shoulders to rest on the floor, then straighten out one leg at a time until both legs are relaxed.
  4. Remain in this position for 60 seconds only.  Expect some initial discomfort as your body adapts to the position.
  5. For a greater effect, you may progress to using the block on its second highest edge on subsequent sets.  Always start using the lowest edge first.
  6. After 60 seconds of lying over the back block, bring your arms back down to your sides.  Then return your legs, one at a time, to the starting position (take care as this can be uncomfortable).
  7. See the following pictures to reference the correct positioning of the block.


The challenge when in the final back block position, is to let go of all muscular tension.  If you are suffering back pain, your body may resist completely relaxing your back over the block.  Take your time.  With each exhale, attempt to let the muscles around your pelvic floor, hip flexors and lower back give way, so that you can begin to feel the traction sensation building up through your spine.

Pelvic rock

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. In this position note that your lower back is somewhat raised (or arched) off the floor.
  2. Flatten your back against the floor (push fairly hard) and then relax.  Do this fairly quickly for about 30 seconds, aim for 30 repetitions.

Having just followed the back block routine, your back may now be feeling slightly sensitive.  Traction through the spine is a force we are not usually accustomed to. It can be a mildly painful experience following this decompression exercise.  The pelvic rock is a gentle way of alleviating any immediate discomfort experienced through the lower back after using the back block.

Knees rocking

  1. Raise your knees, one at a time, towards your chest so that your thighs are parallel to the floor.  Cross both ankles and relax your knees outwards.
  2. Place your hands around the outside of each thigh to hold your knees so that all the weight of your lower body is held in your hands.
  3. Gently oscillate your knees towards your chest for 30 seconds, do this rhythmically as if rocking a baby to sleep.

The knees rocking movement is an excellent way to restore lumbar flexion range of motion.  This helps to loosen the large lumbar erector spinae muscles of the lower back and facilitate further, the imbibition of fluid into the intervertebral discs.

Reverse curls

  1. Start in the same position as for the knees rocking exercise but instead, interlace your fingers behind your head.
  2. Using your lower abdominals, bring your knees towards your chin, attempting to lift your backside off the floor.
  3. Try to keep your stomach pulled inwards as you lower your legs perpendicular to the floor.  Ensure your thighs do not pass beyond this return point (90 degrees).  This will cause your back to arch and potentially become painful.
  4. Do 15 repetitions.

The reverse curl exercise activates the abdominal corsetry that serves to lift your spinal segments off one another.  In this way, the lower abdominals act as the body’s own spine sparing function enabling spinal decompression.

Child’s pose

  1. Start on all fours, then sit your backside onto your heels.
  2. Keep the knees pointing outwards at roughly 45 degrees, then lower your torso forwards with the arms stretched out in front of you.
  3. Relax in this position for up to 30 seconds.

This yoga pose has many benefits but is used in this instance as another means for spinal decompression.  If you have a history of hip, knee or ankle injuries, you may struggle to morph your body into this position.  If so, some simple forward bending off the edge of a seat, or toe touches will suffice.  See the below suggestions.

Forward bending (below left), Toe touches (below right)


Since compression builds up in our spines throughout the day, the best time to perform this routine is at the end of the day.  You can however follow this routine as many times as you like.  Remember, in the mornings after sleep, you would have already been somewhat decompressed throughout the night.  It would thus be less effective doing these exercises upon waking.  Ideally, you would attempt to do this routine between 12 and 3pm, and just before going to bed.

Back blocks are available for purchase at Cartwright Physcialtherapy.

Hip mobility and low back pain

Hip mobility and low back pain

Do you have a mobility issue?

Do you get lower back pain when you squat or have you ever bent down to pick up something small up and felt your back go?

Pain is usually the last symptoms to present and the first to go, if treated appropriately. But what if the pain in your lower back was due to a lack of mobility through your hips and mid back?

Why do we get pain in our lower back if our hips are the problem?

The joint-by-joint approach was first developed by an American Physical therapist Gray Cook and Strength and Conditioning coach Mike Boyle. Their approach to treating and training the body explained how a restriction in one area of the body could result in pain elsewhere.

A loss of mobility through one region of the body for example the hips or mid back means our body have to make up for that loss of movement in another region, in this example the lower back. If our hips won’t move then our lower back will have to. This decreases the stability of the lower back while placing extra and unnecessary strain on the soft tissue structures. Over time this extra strain causes damages to tissues and can result in pain.

Our increasingly sedentary lifestyles leave us prone to developing these mobility restrictions, making stretching and mobility exercises an important part of everyones daily routine. Unity Gym are the only movement based gym in North Sydney and have mobility exercises built into every program. Cartwright Physical Therapy has been closely afflicted with Unity Gym for many years now and together we have helped return people to a better functioning body.

If you have any questions on mobility exercises or are suffering back pain or any other type of pain come in and see us or book an appointment today on 02 9922 6116 or visit our clinic on the Ground Floor, Suite 6, 157 Walker Street North Sydney for more information.

By Patrick Lind

*DISCLAIMER: This discussion does not provide medical advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained in this discussion are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this discussion is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog.

Easy to do passive neck and back remedies

Easy to do passive neck and back remedies

There are many exercises you can do to help relieve neck and back pain, but sometimes your condition is just so sore, the last thing you want to do is move about. Research suggests that returning to activity as soon as possible is advantageous for healing many musculoskeletal complaints so prolonged bed rest should be avoided.

Having said this, you will invariably require some rest time before you can engage in any restorative or therapeutic exercises. The following remedies are positions or movement patterns you can use to spare your spine further damage during this restful period.

Rolled towel exercise for neck pain:

A lot of neck pain complaints, mostly postural, can be attributed to poor sitting whilst at work. The natural curve of the neck is concave from behind and is known as the cervical lordosis. Whilst you may start off the day sitting with good posture, up straight nice and tall, invariably sitting posture will deteriorate throughout the day.

It is common to find workers sitting at their desks poking their chins forward towards the screen. Anatomically speaking, poked-chin posture involves increased flexion at the lower part of the neck, and increased extension at the upper part of the neck at the base of the skull. This disrupts the normal cervical lordosis and gives rise to stiffness and pain at the base of the skull and aching and discomfort around the shoulders. This is all because the body is now having to work extra hard to hold the head upon the shoulders.

To relieve the symptoms from sitting in this way, try using a rolled towel behind your neck when lying down. Ensure the towel is rolled thick enough such that when you are lying, your head is flush with your upper back, but not so thick that it props your head up like a pillow. Do so for 10-15 minutes. At the right thickness, you should feel well supported around the neck and able to relax the neck muscles completely thus giving them a much needed rest. Furthermore, over time this will passively restore the cervical lordosis.


Rolled towel exercise for upper back pain:

For the same reasons as above, desk workers in particular may suffer pain and discomfort in their upper back and shoulders region. Any posture that involves prolonged forward bending can result in pain between the shoulder blades and in turn, tightness or stiffness in the surrounding musculature.

Lying supine on a rolled towel placed vertically down the spine is an excellent way to undo the effects. A towel is preferred to a foam roller purely because of the softness of the towel versus the firmness of a roller. As you will find, this exercise is quite intense and you may only be able to tolerate a maximum of two minutes lying in this way.

When lying like this, allow your head, neck and arms to drop back as far as possible. These parts together act as a lever that helps to bend your spine back the other way. It is ideal to do this exercise on a bench so that your arms can drop further down past your body. To add further intensity to the exercise, you can perform it with arms outstretched.


The 90/90 position (a.k.a the astronaut position)

The 90/90 or astronaut position is an excellent rest position to try when you are suffering extremely painful lower back pain. Getting into this position decompresses your spine, taking any unwanted load off painful or injured areas so that you can at least catch your breath for a while. Whilst resting here, your body can get to work healing itself.

At home, you would try this up against your couch. Lie on the floor and bend your hips and knees both to 90 degrees so that your legs are lying on the seat of the couch. Stay here for about five minutes. It is called the astronaut position as this is the position your seat would face inside a space ship prior to blast off!


Hook lying

An alternative to the astronaut position is hook lying. Again, this is a rest position in which painful lower back pain should be relieved. It also reduces compressive forces through the lumbar spine but perhaps not so much as the astronaut position.

You simply lie on your back with your knees bent so that the soles of your feet rest on the floor. The exercise gets its name as the posture supposedly resembles the shape of a hook. Imagination may well be required.



Squat to sit

Painful lower back injuries make it particularly difficult to move from a standing to a sitting posture, and vice versa. You should use the squat movement pattern when trying to sit down or stand up. This gets you to bend at the hip joints as opposed to bending through your [already painful] spine, and is thus spine sparing.


Lunge to get to the floor

When you are suffering a painful lower back condition, it can be extremely difficult to move to the floor to pick an object up. You may also need to lie down to perform some of the above exercises and so knowing how to move safely to a lying position is vital.

Performing the lunge movement pattern allows you to protect your back at all times whilst moving to the floor. You have most likely heard people saying, bend your knees, but this really doesnt offer any help. When you think about movement patterns and how they can better assist you to perform different functions, you will have a better understanding on how to use your body safely and more efficiently.

*DISCLAIMER: This discussion does not provide medical advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained in this discussion are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this discussion is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog.