Low back pain is the single most over-diagnosed condition within the rehab community. According to the National Institute of Health, this diagnosis will be the most treated episode of care encountered across multiple medical disciplines. In fact, nearly 80% percent of adults will experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes. It is the most common cause of job-related disability and the leading contributor to missed work days [R]. More importantly, I hear countless athletes and fellow gym go-goers with related complaints.
The Roots Of Low Back Pain
Working Out and Lower Back Pain
In a gym setting, low back issues may not be severe or chronic enough to obtain the opinion of a medical professional. More than likely these issues are a product of how we are moving around in the gym and in life. My best advice: record yourself. Not only to see your lifts, but to see how you are using your body around the gym. How we lift, sit, and stand all day in ALL aspects of our lives matters.
Ever do a high rep, low/moderate weight workout think: 80 dumbbell snatches, or high rep, moderate weight deadlifts? Your back is tender to the touch the next day and you just know your form depreciated as you raced the clock to finish before your neighbor. This is the kind of work over time that really isn’t that great for our bodies.
Age-Related Back Pain
With age, the discs in our spine begin to lose water, that’s why at 70 years old you might wake up at 5’9” instead of 6’1”. Less water means less space which exposes the nerves in our spine to greater opportunities for increased friction leading to nerve root irritation and pain throughout different nerve root distributions or just concentrated in the low back.
While we can’t change any of this anatomically or the degenerative changes that will happen, we can do everything in our power to protect the spine we have NOW, so we aren’t screwed later. My biggest pet peeve is when a patient comes to me with low back pain and says ‘fix me’. Or, ‘this is what a mechanic must feel like when they try to fix an old broken down car.’ No, it is not my job to ‘fix’ you, rather it’s your job to begin fixing yourself. When I encounter someone with low back pain my main goal in serving them is to provide an education on anatomy, lifestyle, and specific exercise or postures that will reduce their pain and help them manage their symptoms.
When you sit for long periods of time, the iliopsoas becomes weak, due to not being used in this position. When you suddenly rise from your desk, your chair, or even your bed, you place a tremendous amount of pressure on the iliopsoas to flex the hip joint. If you feel stiffness or pain, you may also notice that you have difficulty bringing your trunk forward, pulling your lower back vertebrae and the psoas muscle (a long muscle in the back) forward and down toward the femur; this is called overarching in the lumbar spine. A stiff iliopsoas can cause a shortened stride in runners, a shallow squat and rounded deadlift in lifters, and some pretty serious pain in individuals if it goes untreated or unattended to.
Lower lumbar muscle strains are the most common cause of back pain. This can happen from overuse, overtraining, or even a sudden movement that causes injury to the ligaments in the back. When a lumbar strain occurs, the cushy, fibrous tissues that connect the bones together, is deteriorated, separated, overstretched or torn, causing pain, discomfort, and limited mobility. Inflammation around the damaged area begins to increase, causing swelling, rushing blood to the area as your body tries to naturally heal the strain or injury.
If you don’t listen to your body, push past the point of pain, an don’t allow the natural signs of strain to slow your roll at the gym or in your life, the course of lower back pain can cause serious damage and tightness while furthering your injury. If you have chronic back pain or chronic lower back pain, it’s important to take note, an pump the brakes. This doesn’t mean you have to go see a physician, but we do recommend taking your recovery into your own hands and making it a priority. Prolonged back pain isn’t normal and there are ways to live a pain-free lifestyle while doing the things you love.
5 Ways To Treat Low Back Pain At Home
The following exercises for lower back pain relief are intended for you to incorporate into your daily or weekly recovery, at home. You don’t need any equipment and just need about 10-15 minutes to yourself to manage low back pain at home. The benefit of stretching and incorporating core-strength exercises is that not only will your back pain begin to wean, but also you’ll feel stronger in your core, translating into stronger, more fluid movement in the gym and in your active lifestyle.
Here are some of my favorite exercises to relieve lower back pain. You can treat yourself when you experience an acute episode of low back pain listed in order to most gentle to more advanced:
- If your pain is bilateral, rotations to both sides
- Lay flat with your legs bent and drop your knees down to the painful direction. Hold for 5 seconds in each direction repeat 10 times as needed throughout the day.
Prone Press Up
- Lay on your stomach and perform 2x10 of this exercise with the goal of centralizing your pain (going from a large handprint area to the size of the ‘thumbprint’)
- What is Centralization? A positive reaction to directional preference exercises where the area of pain will get smaller. An increase in pain a a smaller area is also considered a positive reaction to these directional preference exercises.
Superman Alternating Arms and Legs
- Again on your stomach, tighten your lower abs and alternate between raising your opposite arms and legs performing 10 reps on each side
- On your back in hook-lying: tighten your lower abs and alternate between lifting opposite arms and legs 2x10 progressing to a timed exercise to promote endurance in your lower
- Lower abs: transverses abdominis. These muscles are essential in spinal stabilization and the only superficial core muscles that have any direct connection to the lumbar spine outside of the multifidi that resides in the deep back musculature.
- This is the most advanced stabilization exercise listed. This exercise is performed in tabletop position.
- Progression one: tighten your lower abs. Find this contraction by going through the end ranges of flexion and extension also known as: ‘cat/cow” in order to find pelvic neutral. Hold this for 5x30 seconds
- Progression two: tighten your lower abs and bring one arm at a time off of the mat for 2x10
- Progression three: tighten your lower abs and bring one leg at a time off of the mat for 2x10
- Progression four: tighten your lower abs and alternate opposite arm and leg with minimal weight shifting over the planted arm and leg while holding pelvic neutral.
How To Self Treat Lower Back Pain: The Takeaway
The exercises listed above do NOT take the place of the opinion of a trained medical professional. If your back pain does not resolve within a few days, do not wait; seek out the advice of a licensed physical therapist to complete a full evaluation. In my experience, the sooner a client comes in to see me, the sooner their symptoms resolve with less reoccurrence. Beyond these basic stabilization exercises, a movement assessment may be indicated. Find a physical therapist who is well versed in Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and many of the foundational movements found within your workout programming so they can best help you.
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