James McQuillan | March 27, 2018
When dealing with the terrible “pain in the neck”... er, back... that is lower back pain, there’s a good chance that all you'll want to do is stay in bed. But research has found that more movement-- whether core strengthening, cardio, or stretching-- is the best way to ease pain and reduce the risk of another back attack.
The source of low back pain can be hard to pinpoint. Sometimes it’s actually due to a sustained injury: perhaps from falling, from exercising, from lifting heavy weights, even from simply bending over to pick something up. Other times it’s due to long-term-over or underuse. Often the simple act of sitting (which most of us in America and the developed countries do for an estimated ten hours a day) is to blame for lower back pain. Yikes.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), back problems are much more of a “when” than an “if”: roughly 60-70% of the population in developed countries experience problems over their lifetime. To say that it’s a common problem is an understatement, and if left unresolved, lower back pain can lead to a host of serious complications.
That statistic raises a couple of reasonable questions: what exactly causes it? And what sort of lower back pain relief exists to both ease it and solve it for good? Well, luckily, these answers are ones that the realm of fitness is able to provide with an energetic gusto.
The first and most straightforward answer for this would be our twenty-first century lifestyles. In this day and age, we all spend a disproportionate amount of time sitting, almost completely sedentary.
The long-term effect of this are a shift away from where we should (ideally) be positioning our weight, which is through the hips. If you think about how you'd catch something heavy, you think about sitting into the load. It's what we teach regular gym-goers all the time.
But what ends up happening is what exercise physiologists refer to as upper and/or lower cross syndrome. Our workplace habits are one part of this: the reason that lower cross syndrome impacts your lower back, is that muscles such as the hamstrings (backs of your thighs) and the iliopsoas (one of your hip flexor muscles) have a major effect on areas like your hips. With little to no activity happening there during your work day, they get used to that stationary behavior and therefore lack of flexibility.
This is bad news for areas like your hips and back. Your hamstrings begin to pull on your hips, your hips then pull at your lower back, and that can mean anything from chronic nagging pain to throwing out your back during a game of pick-up soccer with your co-workers.
This same chain of events more or less happens with your iliopsoas as well (the muscle group that serves as the most powerful flexors of the thigh at the hip joint), as this muscle group also has a direct connection to your back. Tension in your hips equals tension in your back.
Below we’ll detail two of the main treatment methods for lower back pain: active recovery exercises such as yoga, pilates, and stretching; and sports massage therapy.
While some fitness experts tend to pit these two against each other in a "which works better" sort of way, either method can be extremely effective for both lower back relief as well as strengthening. Simply standing and performing any movements that are not sitting down at your desk is already a step in the right direction!
Both Yoga and Pilates use a range of positions, movements and techniques that will allow you to engage your lower body and core muscles. This is essential for helping to reduce tension through the lower back, as it enables the legs to take some of the workload from the back, reducing pressure and even resolving back issues long-term.
A sports massage therapist can give regular, repeated attention to the muscles surrounding the lower back such as the quads, iliopsoas, hamstrings and glutes, and can therefore help resolve lower back pain by a significant margin.
Personal experience as a Sports Massage Therapist has taught me this, and I've had my fair share of clients get up from a single session and see improvements in sensation and range of motion. One of the critical indicators that a muscle needs to be worked on and released is if upon touch, there is pain. If muscles are overly tense or visually strained, this is referred to as hypertonicity. A hypertonic muscle is working too hard – it is doing more work than is necessary to accomplish the task at hand. And massage can be very beneficial for this.
There are other remedies aside from these two that we have detailed as well: one is to apply ice to the affected area. “Ice is best in the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury because it reduces inflammation,” says E. Anne Reicherter, PhD, PT, DPT, associate professor of Physical Therapy at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Another is strength training (of course we’re going to mention this!): you can help avert future episodes of back pain by working the muscles that support your lower back such as the quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and core. "They help you maintain the proper posture and alignment of your spine," Reicherter says. Having strong hip, pelvic, and abdominal muscles also gives you more back support. We would actually advise avoiding the standard ab crunches if you’re experiencing low back pain, as these can actually put more stress on your back. Check out our other blog post featuring core exercises that are not crunches.
The fundamental rule of anything health-improvement-related is ultimately always going to be: get moving!
Regular exercise, whatever shape that takes, remains the single, most straightforward step to not only helping to treat but also to prevent lower back pain from getting worse or from happening at all. The rule of thumb you can use is this: whatever parts of your body go rarely used throughout your day: those are the ones to target. For supporting and reducing pain in the lower back, we suggest a mixture of exercises for hamstrings, hip flexors and glutes. Try some hip bridges, bodyweight squats, and leg swings throughout the day.