Stiff back in the mornings

by Robert
(Bath, UK)

Can you explain why I often wake in the mornings with a stiff back?

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Jan 14, 2013
A stiff back in the mornings
by: Sarah says

The simple answer to being too stiff in the mornings is that your bed is too soft.

The other, more complicated, reason is that you have not put your spine through enough activity by day to keep your lumbar discs puffed up and buoyant throughout. The natural steady flattening of all our discs while we are upright (they lose up to 20 % of their water content) is much speeded up by hours of sitting. And if you don’t do sufficient full-scale bending and stretching spinal activity to punctuate the sitting, the discs slowly tighten up and become less s-t-r-e-t-c-h-y.

Over time, this leads to incremental thinning of the bottom discs which but before this happens, you get ‘progressive shortening’ of the ligaments across the vertebral interspaces, which means – very importantly - that when you’re asleep and relaxed on your mattress, the spinal segments can’t let go and subtly ease apart as they suck water in.

Try as they might, your discs with their magic jelly (proteoglycans) in their innards, are trying to rejuvenate overnight by sucking in fluid. But their outer wall is so un-compliant (read rigid) that tension takes up in the too-stiff spinal ligaments, making you wake with a back as brittle as a bamboo pole. Not only has your spine been unable to grow imperceptibly overnight to get your full quota of fluid for the next day - you are SORE because your disc walls are being stretched by the fluid that has got in.

You often feel cast and stranded, like a beetle on its back. You have heave yourself over and winch yourself up sideways to get out of bed – and as for getting your underpants on, forget it! You only get comfortable when you have been up and about for a while, when the discs start deflating again (gravity soon starts leaching them which reduces their pressure). As this takes the tension off the ligaments, your back gets more comfortable and you can move freely again.

You can speed up this loosening process each morning by ‘working’ your back to get the spinal segments sluicing fluid through the discs before you get up. The best way of doing this is gently and rhythmically rocking your knees to your chest for a few moments, taking care to keep your neck and shoulders relaxed, so you can feel the segments in your low back starting to hinge open (see page 172 of my book ‘The Back Sufferers’ Bible’). Don’t be alarmed if your back feels slightly painful and stiff to start with; this is a ‘good’ pain. As you keep going it will fade and you will have a much more comfortable day. Remember too that squatting at intervals through the day checks the steady flattening of your discs and improves the shock absorption of your spine. And remember, doing the BackBlock before bedtime makes your discs better able to accommodate the incoming fluid overnight.

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