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Woke Up with a Stiff Back? 7 Causes and Fixes from London Physio

Most of us have experienced waking up to an unwelcome stiffness in the back. It’s not just a nuisance; it’s a signal from your body that shouldn’t be ignored.

Especially if you’re elderly, going through other health problems, or have had multiple episodes of stiff back in the morning lately. Addressing this stiffness early on is crucial to maintaining your daily rhythm.

Back pain is much more common than most people realise, which sometimes makes it easy to ignore. Physiotherapy has proven to be a remarkably effective approach to managing this pain long-term.

So, let’s try to understand this issue and explore practical solutions, shall we?

Understanding Your Stiff Back: 7 Uncommon Causes and Physiotherapy Fixes

Why does your back greet you with stiffness in the morning? Several factors might be at play, from the mattress you sleep on to the activities of your previous day, and even your hydration levels.

While much attention is given to “bad” posture – especially in the media – it’s not that big a deal. There isn’t a “bad” posture, per say, although some postures do put excess load on your back which may increase stiffness in the mornings. But that’s a topic for another day.

The key message about posture and back pain is this: there’s no one-size-fits-all in how you should sit or stand so don’t worry too much about maintaining a specific posture – you may do more harm than good.

1.   Underlying Spinal Conditions

Conditions such as degenerative disc disease and arthritis can intensify during the night due to inactivity. That may lead to a stiff back in the morning. That’s because such conditions involve inflammation, potentially causing discomfort after prolonged periods of rest. Your pain perception varies with your circadian rhythms. That can potentially heighten morning pain sensitivity.

Recommendation: If you suspect such conditions are behind your back pain, it’s crucial to seek a healthcare professional’s opinion. They can offer correct diagnoses and appropriate treatment options. If you have a family history of degenerative spinal conditions or have such conditions anywhere else in your body, then definitely visit your GP and get a thorough check-up.

Physio solution: Physiotherapy can be a game-changer if you’re diagnosed with such spinal conditions. Our tailored exercises and therapies focusing on enhancing spinal health and reducing pain can ease your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

2.   Muscle Fatigue or Overuse

Overexerting your back muscles, whether through exercise or daily activities, can lead to stiffness the next day. If you’re overworked a lot for a couple of days, you can expect to wake up with a lot of stiffness at once. Muscle fatigue accumulates, particularly if you don’t allow adequate recovery time.

Recommendation: Rest and gentle stretching are key. Giving your muscles time to recover can prevent early morning back stiffness and pain.

Physio solution: Simple yet effective back stretches can significantly aid in muscle recovery. For example, threading the needle stretch, pelvic tilts and back twists can quickly relax your back muscles, promoting flexibility and pain relief.

3.   Stress and Tension

Psychological stress triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response. It releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause muscles to tense up as part of the body’s readiness for action.

Chronic stress can lead to sustained muscle tension, particularly in the back, causing stiffness and pain. Over time, this tension can make back discomfort worse at all times of the day.

Recommendation: Implementing stress management techniques, like mindfulness or yoga, can help alleviate this tension. Finding ways to unwind before bed can lead to a more relaxed spine in the morning.

Physio solution: Specific physio exercises, such as pelvic tilts, can induce muscle relaxation and reduce back tension. Acupuncture and dry cupping are also excellent ways to rid your body of built-up stress and tightness.

4.   Lack of Physical Activity

A sedentary lifestyle can weaken your back muscles and make them inflexible because they’re not used to the appropriate load necessary for healthy function. As a result, they can’t support your spine well. This lack of support can make your back feel stiff and sore, especially if you sit a lot every day.

Recommendation: Incorporating regular, back-friendly exercises into your daily routine can prevent stiffness and bolster spinal health. Try doing some activity every hour you’re awake, even if it’s a 2 min walk or 1 min stretch.

Physio solution: A series of physiotherapy exercises designed to enhance your back mobility and strength can be very beneficial. For instance, gentle back extensions and core-strengthening exercises can make a significant difference.

But the key is to follow an individualised program from experts such as our physiotherapists. Starting too much too soon can be damaging.

5.   Vitamin D Deficiency

Inadequate vitamin D levels can affect bone health and muscle function. It can increase muscle and bone sensitivity, potentially worsening your back pain and early morning stiffness.

Recommendation: Checking your vitamin D levels and incorporating rich dietary sources or supplements, as suggested by a healthcare provider, can help.

Physio solution: Engaging in light stretching exercises that are safe for those with potential bone or muscle weakness can provide relief without risking further discomfort.

Again, don’t start lifting weights all of a sudden to fix your back stiffness. You have to be extra careful if you have low vitamin D levels. Contact us so we can give you an appropriately loaded program to get you healthy.

6.    Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a type of arthritis that mainly hits the spine. It makes the backbones, or vertebrae, fuse over time, causing stiffness and pain.

This condition can make your back feel very stiff and sore, especially when you wake up in the morning. The stiffness is because your spine doesn’t move much overnight, and the inflammation from the condition makes it feel worse when you first get up.

Recommendation: Early diagnosis and a tailored physical therapy program are essential for managing ankylosing spondylitis effectively.

Physio solution: Our specialised physiotherapy services, focusing on spinal mobility and posture, can ease your back stiffness and improve daily functioning if you’re diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis.

7.   Nighttime Acid Reflux

Severe acid reflux at night can push stomach acid up into your throat, which can be very uncomfortable. This discomfort can make you sleep in odd positions or tense up your muscles without realising it, trying to ease the pain.

When you do this all night, you might wake up with your back feeling stiff and sore because your muscles were tight while you were trying to avoid the acid reflux discomfort.

Recommendation: Incorporate dietary and lifestyle changes to relieve acid reflux. Sometimes elevating the head while sleeping feels better too.

Physio solution: Gentle back-stretching exercises can offer you relief without worsening the underlying reflux condition, aiding in a more comfortable sleep.

8.   Osteoporotic Fractures

Osteoporosis makes your bones weak and more likely to break. If you have osteoporosis, you might get tiny breaks in your spine bones called fractures. These fractures, and inflammation that may accompany osteoporosis, can make your back hurt and feel stiff, especially when you wake up in the morning after lying still all night.

The pain and stiffness happen because your muscles are overworked trying to protect the broken bones or provide stability that usually comes from the bones.

Recommendation: Regular screening for bone density, along with proper medical and lifestyle interventions, can decrease the risk of fractures and associated back issues.

Physio solution: Physiotherapy can play a crucial role in strengthening your spine and improving balance, thereby reducing the likelihood of falls and subsequent fractures due to osteoarthritis.

9.   Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis occurs when the spaces within your spine narrow, which can compress the nerves and lead to pain and stiffness. This condition tends to be more prevalent in older adults due to the natural degenerative changes that occur with ageing.

Recommendation: While severe cases might require surgical intervention, you may benefit significantly from non-surgical treatments. Physical therapy is a cornerstone of managing spinal stenosis, aiming to improve mobility and alleviate symptoms.

Physio solution: Exercises that focus on spinal flexibility and strengthening the muscles supporting the spine are particularly beneficial. For instance, our physiotherapists might recommend gentle stretching exercises and core strengthening routines to help stabilise the spinal column and alleviate pressure on the nerves.

10.   Paget’s Disease of Bone

Paget’s disease of bone disrupts the normal cycle of bone renewal, leading to enlarged and misshapen bones, which can affect the spine and cause pain and stiffness.

Recommendation: Effective management of Paget’s disease often involves medications to regulate bone growth, alongside interventions to address symptoms and prevent complications. Monitoring and treatment by healthcare professionals are vital to managing the progression of the disease.

Physio solution: Physiotherapy for individuals with Paget’s disease focuses on gentle exercises to maintain flexibility and strengthen the muscles around the affected bones, thus supporting the spine. Such exercises are designed to be safe and accommodating to the changes in your bone structure, helping to alleviate discomfort and enhance mobility.

11.   Late-Onset Scoliosis

Scoliosis that appears or worsens later in life can cause back pain and stiffness, affecting overall quality of life. In the elderly, this can be due to a variety of factors, including degenerative changes in the spine.

Recommendation: Monitoring the progression of scoliosis and implementing appropriate treatments, such as bracing or physical therapy, can help manage symptoms and maintain function.

Physio solution: Physiotherapy for late-onset scoliosis focuses on exercises that improve posture, flexibility, and core strength, which can help support your spine and reduce discomfort.

Our physiotherapists may also advise on safe ways to conduct your daily activities to prevent further curvature of the spine or worsening of symptoms.

12.   Previous Surgical Procedures

Surgery on the back or spine can lead to scar tissue formation, potentially causing stiffness or discomfort, particularly in older individuals.

Recommendation: Ongoing care after back surgery helps to ensure the best possible outcome. Regular check-ups with your healthcare provider can help detect and address any issues that arise post-surgery.

Physio solution: Our specialised physiotherapy can be helpful in the recovery and long-term maintenance of spinal health post-surgery. Our exercises and therapies are often designed to enhance your mobility, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and reduce the likelihood of future stiffness or pain.

When Back Stiffness Is Too Much

It’s vital to recognise when stiffness is more than just a minor inconvenience. If your back pain is severe enough to disrupt your sleep regularly, it’s a signal to seek professional help.

Our qualified physiotherapists in London can provide a thorough assessment and a tailored treatment plan, ensuring your back’s health is on the right track.

Your Next Steps

If you’re tired of waking up with a stiff back and want a long-term solution, get in touch with our physiotherapy clinics in Eltham, Battersea or Norbury.