Back Pain From Acid Reflux? Here Are 6 Exercises That Can Help

Written by Claire Hannum

July 25, 2023

Is heartburn a regular part of your weekly routine? You’re not alone: as many as 20% of Americans suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is caused by frequent acid reflux (1).

If you have GERD, that painfully familiar burning sensation in your chest and sour taste in your mouth is caused by stomach acid moving back up to your esophagus. Cases of GERD are on the rise, and the condition is especially common in the western world (2).

Many causes for this increase in cases may be linked to a rise in unhealthy food choices, alcohol consumption, smoking, and limited exercise (3). There’s also the stress factor: GERD symptoms can be exacerbated by stress (4). On average, Americans are 20% more stressed than their peers around the world, so maybe it’s not such a surprise that we’re experiencing GERD at such high rates (5).

It doesn’t stop at heartburn. While that trademark symptom is well-known, many people with GERD report experiencing other painful symptoms, like back pain. Is this directly caused by GERD, and if so, how do we treat it? I went to Dr. Chad Walding, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Co-Founder of NativePath, for answers.

Can Acid Reflux Cause Back Pain?

You’re not imagining things: that pain in the middle of your back can be caused by a GERD flare-up (6). “Often with acid reflux there is a burning pain in the stomach and throat area that can move down to the back,” explains Walding. “Whatever contents are in the stomach can get pushed back up the digestive system and cause irritation. This can also travel to the back area.” 

In his practice, he often comes across patients who suffer both from heartburn and back pain at once. “This is mainly because the reflux has two parts,” he explains. “A chemical side (what we eat and drink) and a mechanical side (our body positions, breathing quality, posture). Most people have a little bit of both.”

The good news: you may be able to reduce your GERD-related back pain by focusing on both of these factors. And when it comes to the mechanical side, Dr. Walding has a few tips that can help.

If GERD is causing pain or discomfort in your back, try these simple movements for speedy relief. Follow along as Dr. Walding leads you through this short movement session…

1. Chest Stretches

Rounded shoulders can inflame acid reflux symptoms. This stretch can help create more space in the chest. Lay facing forward on the floor with your left arm extended straight to your side. Then lean on your left side, with your left leg extended on the floor and your right leg bent at the knee with your hips open. Repeat on the opposite side. Do 2-3 sets on each side, holding for 30 seconds each time.

2. Shoulder Shrugs

If you’re looking for results fast, start with this motion first. “I like the shoulder shrugs as an easy first step. It will immediately align the body and improve breathing. Pain and tension tends to go away around the shoulders and mid back. Also, you can do it anywhere at anytime since you don’t need to lay down.”

You can do this move in a chair, while standing up, or on your heels on the floor. Lift your shoulders up and squeeze, holding for 5 seconds. Then, squeeze your shoulders back and down, positioning your elbows behind your back. Hold for 5 seconds. Do 5 sets.

3. Seated Twists

Sit on the floor with your left leg extended forward and your right leg crossed, with your foot resting to the left of your left knee. Lift your left arm and extend it across your bent right knee, then rest your left elbow on the outside of your right thigh. Gently turn and look slightly behind you. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side. Do 2-3 sets.

4. Plank Poses

“Planks to contract the core combined with belly breathing are a good way to help move anything that is stuck in the digestive and respiratory system,” explains Walding. Get into the plank position. Squeeze your behind and lock your legs and arms tightly. Hold for 15-20 seconds, with a goal of working your way up to 30 seconds. Do 2-3 sets.

5. Modified Cobbler Pose

Sit on the floor with your feet pressed together. Wrap your arms around your feet and push your elbows into your knees or inner thighs. Lean slightly forward and hold. Hold for 30 seconds. Do 2-3 sets.

6. Knee-to-Chest Stretch

Lay back on the floor with your right leg extended flat on the floor and your left knee bent. Wrap your hands around your left knee and pull it toward your chest. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side. Do 2-3 sets.

Along with keeping these movements in your back pocket, stay aware of your posture throughout the day. “Avoid slouching, standing on one leg, leaning to one side, or anything that takes the spine out of neutral for long periods,” suggests Dr. Walding.

Other Natural Remedies for Acid Reflux

If GERD is still throwing a wrench in your routine, lifestyle changes could help. Here are some ways that may soothe GERD symptoms naturally, without medication.

  • Drink plenty of water. Aim to sip half your body weight in ounces per day (7).
  • Eat foods that are rich in fiber, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Fiber absorbs liquid in the digestive system, which prevents the displacement of stomach acid. Research has found that adding 12.5 grams of soluble fiber to your daily diet can decrease GERD symptoms (8).
  • Consider taking probiotics and digestive enzymes, which could help reduce heartburn.
  • Use essential oils to soothe your digestive system, especially lavender, chamomile, and peppermint. (Make sure to follow instructions on how to safely use each oil—they’re super potent!)
  • Avoid foods and drinks that could trigger acid reflux, including fried spicy foods, citrus, tomatoes, dairy, chocolate, processed meat, and carbonated drinks. “Avoid sugar, toxic fats, grains, dairy, and all processed or refined foods,” says Walding. “What we eat has a profound impact on the health of our digestive system.”
  • Consider taking supplements like ginger, turmeric, magnesium, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice root extract) (9).Talk to a healthcare provider or holistic practitioner before starting a supplement to make sure you’re taking the most beneficial options.
  • Truly chew your food—not everyone does! “One big thing that helps is to really chew your food,” says Wadling. “It’s also good to avoid chasing down your food with liquids. Chewing your food without added liquids will help your mouth begin to secrete all the important enzymes that help you break down your food. The more you chew, the more enzymes will be present. Drinking other liquids will dilute the enzymes and negatively impact digestion.”
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day.
  • Finish eating for the day at least 3 hours before laying down for bed (10).
  • Consider limiting your caffeine and alcohol intake. Research has found that alcohol can impact GERD symptoms, but everyone feels that impact differently. Some people can drink certain forms of alcohol and not others. Caffeine is believed to inflame GERD, but the research is still murky (11). Some doctors will suggest cutting out caffeine and alcohol altogether, while others will suggest getting to know our own body’s reactions to each beverage and deciding how much of it to consume from there.
  • Drink teas like ginger tea, chamomile tea, peppermint tea, licorice tea, and slippery elm tea.
  • Consider avoiding certain supplements, like iron, which can aggravate acid reflux and back pain. Talk to your healthcare provider about any supplement concerns you may have.
  • Include stress-reducing activities like yoga, mindfulness, and meditation into your daily routine.
  • Elevate the head of your bed by six inches (12).
  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing, in which you focus on breathing deeply into your abdomen. “Learning to properly breathe through the diaphragm is essential,” says Walding. “A good practice is with 4/4 breathing, where when you inhale the belly rises and the chest stays still. When you exhale, the belly falls and the chest stays still again.  This teaches you how to properly breathe with a more activated diaphragm. It also helps calm the body and put it in a more relaxed state. This reduces overall tension and allows for better body positions with less pain.”
Claire Hannum
Article by

Claire Hannum

Claire Hannum is a New York City-based writer, editor, wellness seeker, and reiki practitioner. Her writing has appeared in Self, Health, Prevention, and over a dozen other publications.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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