Chronic pain comes in many forms.
It can be as innocuous as experiencing an occasional rotator cuff twinge that turns into a persistent impingement over years of desk work, or an instance of a tight foot while walking that eventually succumbs to plantar fasciitis.
Some chronic pain goes even deeper, stemming from an unfortunate wealth of triggers and possible origins beyond the wear and tear of everyday movement or work. We as humans are vulnerable to inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, histamine sensitivity-induced migraines, and autoimmune disorders, including Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism. These conditions can be genetic, viral, microbial, or bacterial, or simply transpire over time due to our lifestyle and environment.
However, that doesn’t mean that we must surrender to the inevitable!
The Power of Stretches for Chronic Pain
Studies on chronic pain widely concur that stretching intermittently can have beneficial impacts on the underlying mechanisms that cause the pain itself.
That being said, I would love to supply you with some of my favorite foot (and hand, and ankle, and wrist, and hip) soldiers in the fight against dealing with chronic pain on an everyday basis.
You are welcome to use these stretches for chronic pain at any time of day. They are useful preventatively as a warmup—what we often call “prehab” or “prehabilition” in a health and fitness practice—as well as post-workout, for what we call “rehab” or rehabilitation. You are also encouraged to apply them ad hoc: whenever you experience pain and need to address it in the moment.
On we go! Please read through the list carefully, watch the corresponding videos linked to each one, and identify which stretches may serve you best. Not every stretch for chronic pain may be perfect for every body, so feel free to try them out at your comfort level and discern what feels best.
Stretches for Chronic Pain in the Hips and Lower Back
Child’s Pose: This essential yoga pose feels like a gentle embrace between you and the ground. Grab a mat, comfortable towel, or rug, and bring yourself to the center of that space on your hands and knees. Simply rock your weight back into your heels, contract the muscles between your calves and hamstrings, and feel the tension melt out of your lower back as your upper body lengthens out, hands pressing the mat away from you.
If getting up and down off of the ground is challenging, then modify the movement by sitting in a chair and slowly lowering your upper body over your legs, reaching towards your ankles. Stretch gently, vertebrae by vertebrae, and stop if you feel any pinching or discomfort; never shirk from under-stretching if this is your first foray into this uninvestigated territory.
Cobra Pose: Many folks are nervous about backward-bending stretches when in fact they are some of the most helpful stretches for chronic pain! Consider a vital structure—the anterior longitudinal ligament—that runs through the front of your spinal column; you definitely want to stretch that out to maintain the health and vitality of your nervous system, otherwise there may be the risk of disc compression and poor vagus nerve signaling, which controls our fight-or-flight response.
Welcome yourself to lie on your stomach with your hands underneath your shoulders and lift your head and neck, allowing your upper body to rise to whatever degree feels safe and comfortable. Keep your glutes gently contracted to stabilize your lumbar region, which will make it okay to feel a little bit of tension in your lower back as the muscles wake up to gratefully assist your back and arms. You can also do this seated by pressing your hands into the seat of your chair or the armrests next to your sides, and pushing your chest to the ceiling while tilting your head back as much as it feels appropriate to do so.
Stretches for Chronic Pain in the Upper Back and Shoulders
Cat-Cow: Another quintessential yoga stretch! On your hands and knees, round your spine towards the ceiling while slowly dropping your head and breathing in—that’s your Cat, similar to the classic Halloween icon. Follow it with a deep exhale as you reverse the motion and let your belly drop towards the ground—there’s your Cow; picture it mooing up to the moon. Lift your head and neck to keep the line of your cervical region in sync with your lumbar.
You can do this stretch for chronic pain anytime, anywhere, in any position. Even standing or sitting, simply let your back relax and contract, slowly allowing it to explore concave and convex positions as you feel your vertebrae unwind the sensations of pain or tension knotted around the discs.
Downward Dog: Here’s some much-anticipated news: You don’t need your heels to touch the ground for this one. Just start in that same hands-and-knees position we used for Cat-Cow and Child’s Pose, and stick your “tail” up to the ceiling in as straight a line as possible from your head to the bones of your rear end.
Although many attractive yoga images show Downward Dog with the heels grounded firmly on the mat, I encourage you to keep your knees bent and leave your heels off the ground instead, focusing on pressing through your toes to engage your hamstrings and support your abdominals. As you gain more flexibility, the option to unlock more may become available to you. However, this variation with bent legs has yielded much more immediate relief for my clients during my work as a personal trainer because this variation promotes more emphasis on the lower back and feet—which brings us to our next area to stretch!
Stretches for Chronic Pain in the Feet and Ankles
Ankle Circles: This stretch for chronic pain is as simple as it sounds. From the comfort of a chair, you get to hold your foot and make circles with it. Feel the joints loosening and allow yourself the comfort of assuaging any tightness that may have accrued over the course of the day.
Shin Stretch: Once you have completed the ankle circles, you may hold your foot in a stretched position—otherwise known as plantarflexed—and let the sensation of stretching travel all the way up your shin to the edge of your lower kneecap. It does wonders for ease when walking, since the shin often becomes compressed by taking strides too roughly; every time your heel strikes the ground, some of that impact is transferred into a contraction in the front of the leg, which can impede movement over time.
Stretches for Chronic Pain in the Hands and Wrist
Wrist Circles: Did you have fun circling your ankles? Now try your wrists! Enjoy the challenge of making full, complete circumductions with your entire hand and wrist. This one tends to feel especially wonderful if you have a proclivity for handiwork or crafting.
Finger Flexion/Extension: This one can be done almost anytime or anywhere. Make the tightest fist possible, then release it with a breath. Then make the widest, most out-stretched hand possible, and release it with a similar happy breath. Repeat as many times as desired; hands are hardy creatures when we realize just how much we get to do with them.
Stretches for Chronic Pain in the Head and Neck
Chin Tucks: Whenever you feel at a loss to keep your head straight, this stretch will help. What’s more, it can also be done in almost any circumstance in which you have your head and neck available to move at liberty. (Otherwise, it might be awkward in some social scenarios.) Simply contract your chin against the front of your neck, breathe, and release. Reverse the movement and extend your chin out into space, breathe, and release. In both movements, keep your line of sight parallel to the ground; try not to look up or down if you can help it.
Side Neck Stretch: Another easily-maneuvered, travel-friendly stretch. If you have an arm and a hand free in addition to a liberated head and neck, then gently take one side of your head and pull it towards your shoulder. Feel a stretch along the side of your neck, ideally releasing the muscles from your ear to your collarbone. Repeat on the other side and as needed throughout the day.
Total-Body Stretches for Chronic Pain
Corpse Pose: Lie on your back in a space where you feel safe and comfortable. Let your arms fall into any position that feels comfortable and most open for your chest and shoulders. Breathe. Be at peace.
Happy Baby: Emerge from Corpse Pose into the world again by holding onto your thighs, shins, ankles, or, if you have the extra flexibility, the outer edges of your feet, and slowly, very slowly, rock yourself from side to side and let the ground massage circulation back into your nervous system.
Explore more movement with yoga for chronic pain.