I have seen many clients over the years complaining of low back pain. They usually let me know that this has been going on for quite some time, and seem to feel that they have been sentenced to a life of chronic aches and occasional bouts of "throwing out" their back. Left unattended, low back pain is sure to quietly creep up on us until we do that one wrong move….and then BAM….out of commission and in serious pain for days, or maybe even weeks.
Well, with a little care and attention, this does not have to be the case. There are measures you can take to eliminate or at least lessen your back pain.
First, it is helpful to understand some common causes of pain in the low back. Our daily lives keep us sitting A LOT.…in the car, at the office, at home on the couch. Sitting so much can start to wear on the low back, but it's not the muscles of the low back themselves, usually. So what is it then? Tight hamstrings and/or hip flexors. The hamstrings are the muscle group located on the back of the thigh. The hip flexors are made of up of a few different muscles, including one of the "quads" called the rectus femoris, and the psoas muscles, located deep in the abdomen. Both the hamstrings and hip flexors attach onto the pelvis, so any tightness there will pull on the pelvis one way or another, causing strain on the low back. Tight muscles also put more pressure on the nerves and even the discs of the lower back, which can also cause pain. There can also be some tightness through the gluteal muscles (back of the hip) which can affect how the low back is feeling.
So it is no wonder then, that when a massage therapist hears "low back pain", the first thing we want to check out are the leg and gluteal muscles. Massage can help lengthen these chronically shortened muscles back to their neutral state. Once they are moving well, the legs can move freely from the pelvis, making them less likely to pull on the spine and cause back pain.
What YOU Can Do at Home
Along with getting into a regular massage routine, there are things you can do at home to cut down on your low back pain. A self-care routine can significantly help your back, and it doesn't even have to take a long time.
Stretching the hamstrings, hip flexors and glutes is the easiest way to help yourself. Now I know what you are thinking...
"I'm not flexible enough to do any of that yoga or stretching stuff". Well I know it sounds obvious, but stretching is HOW people gain flexibility! Yet time and again, I hear people write themselves off as "unflexible" as if this is something that can never change. A consistent routine of proper stretching can make a real difference.
The second thing you are likely thinking at this point, if you have been diligently stretching after your workouts, is that it doesn't seem to do anything for you. Chances are, you are not holding the stretch long enough. Our muscles have special receptors that prevent us from overstretching, and in order to get past that and create a change in the muscles, it is advisable to hold the stretch for about 2 minutes. Now, this WILL feel like a really long time when you first start doing it. But, consistently stretching this way will make a difference in the muscle.
It is important to stretch in this static manner only after the body is somewhat warm, either from cardiovascular activity or a hot bath. Before activity, it is recommended that you use only dynamic movement, where you move through a range of motion but not stay in a static stretch. But I digress...
This stretch is for the muscles in the back of the thigh. These muscles can be tight from sitting or even standing if you tend to round your low back and tuck your pelvis under. They can also be tight from activities like running and cycling.
Start with your leg up on a low chair or solid surface, and hold on to a wall or nearby stable surface if necessary. Slowly flex at the hip until you feel a stretch in the back of the leg. You may feel it more behind the knee, or where the leg meets the hip, or even higher up into the low back. If you need to, bend the knee softly. Try to keep your breathing even and smooth and keep tension out of your upper body. Make sure you feel like you are sticking your bottom out. If you don't, you may be only rounding your spine and not really getting the stretch where you need it, as demonstrated below.