Back pain is never something expected or welcomed – instead it tends to sneak up unannounced – one day you’re going about your day, and the next thing you know you have constant pain to deal with. Perhaps you were at the gym, or work, or simply reaching for something or trying to put your shoes on at home and ‘BAM!’ – as they say in the world of pro wrestling, you’re in ‘a world of hurt’!
How back pain happens
I’ll start with my story…One day I was in the gym doing deadlifts (a great exercise for the back and legs, but one which can put a lot of stress on the spine). I was using a weight that was only 5 kilos heavier than last week, since I believed in trying to beat my previous workout every time….but that 5 kilos made all the difference!
I was due to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions, and even the first set was tough. After the first set I had a dull ache in my back which was fairly common for deadlift day, a sign that the muscles were being worked hard. After set two the ache had got worse and after set three I had to lie on the floor to be able to stop the pain, which was getting worse. Of course like all young and apparently invincible guys, I waited until I was able to stand with ‘not much’ pain and then proceeded to do another set! I had a target in my head and stubbornly pushed on until I’d hit it…..however, my workout was now over and I was barely able to stand – even sitting caused considerable pain.
I quickly learned a position that I would become very familiar with over the next few months (lying on my back with my legs on a chair) was pretty much the only position where I could be comfortable. Needless to say, this put my training sessions for the future somewhat on the back burner while I spent time and money trying to get pain-free in my back again!
The end result of this was that I was unable to train with weights for around 6 months, and it took well over a year to get back to my previous strength levels. The upside is that the research that I did during this time started me down the path to becoming interested in injury prevention/rehabilitation, but the downside is that it was likely entirely avoidable.
Lesson – If the hips are wrong, the back is under more strain
When I first saw the osteopath after my injury he found my pelvis was out of place. This is a common finding amongst people with back pain. One of the reasons for this is because the spine sits on top of the pelvis, with gravity (and whatever weight you are lifting if and when you lift weights) pushing down on it. Therefore if the pelvis is not correctly aligned, the spine will also be incorrectly aligned. There has to be some form of compensation higher up the chain in order to maintain weight distribution and balance. The good news is that it often it is possible to realign the pelvis by releasing tight muscles, and only in extreme cases will you need to be ‘cracked’ by an osteopath or chiropractor (see below for a common release for the hips)
Another common problem is that the hips are aligned properly at rest, but do not move as intended when walking/running/cycling/lifting weights/etc. The pelvis is designed to move a small amount as the hip flexes or rotates, and if this movement is restricted extra stress will be sent up and down the body in order to compensate for this. For example, the pelvis is meant to rotate as the leg is lifted in front of the body and if this rotation is limited the body will find another way to gain this motion. This additional motion will generally come from the lower back, putting strain on the soft tissue and disks in the area. Considering the virtually every activity involves lifting the leg in front of the body (running, cycling, jumping and many weight training exercises, for example) it is a high priority to correct this movement problem before performing exercise, especially at high intensities or prolonged durations.
Action – A simple release for the hips that can help back pain
As a Biomechanics Coach, one of the most common exercises I use to release the hips is called ‘4 sign’, a simple self-release exercise intended to release spasm in the piriformis and hip rotators. This will help the hips to move more freely, putting less strain through the lower back.
To perform the 4 sign exercise, sit in a normal chair and cross one leg over the other putting the ankle joint of the lifted leg on top of the knee of the leg that is still on the floor. Sit tall and in good posture and then put your hand/forearm on the knee of the crossed-over leg. Do not push the leg into a stretch, just let it fall to where it naturally falls to and then put the hand on top of the knee to hold it there. From this position, push the outside of the crossed-over leg’s ankle into the knee of the leg touching the floor at 20% of your maximal strength (in other words, a very small effort). Hold this contraction for 20 seconds and then release, drop the leg down, shake it out and relax, then repeat (or switch sides). Perform this exercise 3-4 times each side and you may find that the knee will now drop closer to the floor when the legs are crossed, which is a good sign!
See the picture below for a demonstration of the 4 sign exercise:
If you have back pain that doesn’t respond to the simple release above, there may be another cause and/or other treatment needed – to book in for a full Biomechanics assessment please visit the contact page