The simple answer to this question is that it is generally safe for most people, even those with back pain. Like all situations there are some small exceptions, perhaps when you’ve got an acute flare up and your back pain is very severe it may not be possible to bend forward without it aggravating your back further. Otherwise, bending is actually a really important function for the back to do. It’s a movement that we generally do many times in the course of an average day and the bending and straightening movement can actually help the discs between the vertebrae to stay better hydrated and therefore provide more cushioning between each vertebrae as the movement helps the discs to suck in fluids. Bending is helpful for keeping the back healthy and functioning effectively.
For many people with back pain though you might find it helpful to fold forward with the support of your legs (especially at the outset) to give you some additional support as you move down and forward. This can be done as a spinal roll down and roll back up. Regular practice of a movement such as this can mean that the spine is used to moving in such a way, and so in the event of having to bend suddenly (e.g. to catch something that is falling), you’ll find that as you instinctively react (e.g. through bending down to catch it), you’re much less likely to injure yourself in the process. You might start small, maybe one or two roll downs and back up again, and then maybe build up to three to five over the course of a few weeks. You'll find this will also be helpful with things such as bending over to put socks or shoes on!
Practice little and often will have the most benefits. Bending the knees as much as you need to is also important – we don’t need to have the world’s most flexible hamstrings to be able to bend forward – it’s ok to bend the knees! I’ll be doing some examples of this movement in my Back Care Community facebook group this week so come and join me there is you would like to find out more.
Speaking about bending forward, the physiotherapist Sarah Key says ‘Bending forward keeps the ligaments and all the soft tissues supple and stretchable; it keeps the facet joints at the back of the vertebrae well oiled; it keeps the spinal cord free and slippery in the spinal canal and it keeps the spinal nerves elastic like strands of cooked spaghetti.’
Through certain therapeutic movements, it’s also possible to strengthen the muscles in the back to help
support with rolling down and back up again. These can include lying on your front and creating engagement on diagonal lines across the body (pressing down into one hand and the top of the opposite foot at the same time and then swapping to the other side), along with small movements to lift the upper body from the floor into a very low sphinx pose (most likely lower down with the elbows further forward and out than shown in this photo).
For most people with chronic back pain, it's useful to know that these movements, practiced regularly, will be beneficial to your spine, keeping it younger and healthier than if we do not bring any movement into it at all. If we keep the spine constantly rigid with no movement, the overall health of our spine is likely to deteriorate over time. Remember it's a normal function of the spine to move in a wide range of movement - forward, rotation, stretching to the side.