As a massage therapist and a mother of an infant, I do a lot of work that can strain my back. I see many clients, as well, whose main complaint is low back pain. This debilitating and common problem can be prevented and relieved by following my easy suggestions.
This article is not intended as medical advice, but only a guide to help you address your low back pain. I offer you what has worked for me and for my clients, as well as my knowledge as a body worker. If these tips do not help, or if your low back pain is severe or debilitating, please see an osteopath, chiropractor, or medical doctor.
The first factor to look at in the instance of low back pain is posture and body alignment. Many people, especially women, arch our low backs by sticking out our butts. This overstretches the hamstrings, weakening them, and tightens the Quadratus Lumborum (QL) muscles, which sit between the rib cage and the pelvis. Hypertension or chronically tight QLs is a common cause of all sorts of low back and hip pain. Tight muscles can cause trigger points, which are spots that trigger pain in another area; for instance, a trigger point in the upper QL, just below the twelfth rib, can cause pain in the butt muscles and thighs. What is often mislabeled sciatica can actually be due to trigger points in the QL or a chronically tight piriformis muscle, which runs from the sacrum (the flat bone at the top of your butt) to the top of the leg bone. The piriformis can be tight from rotating the legs outward, or even from tight QLs that are tweaking the entire hip area.
To achieve proper alignment in the low back and pelvis, stand with your knees bent slightly and tilt your tailbone under, doing a hip thrust. Make sure your legs are about hip width apart, and your toes point straight forward. Now slowly straighten your knees, keeping your tailbone tucked. Keep it tucked as you relax your stomach muscles. Relax, but try to keep your tailbone tipped down a little. This may take some practice and repetition, but over time your muscles will learn how to stand with the pelvis appropriately aligned. Also notice while you walk if your toes point forward, or out to the sides like a duck. Try walking with your toes forward. Again, this will take time to learn if you have been walking with the leg bones turned out for years, but your hips will be grateful.
While going about your daily activities, notice the relationship of your low back to your legs and stomach. For instance, a common posture is to lean against the counter while washing dishes. This shortens both the hamstrings and the QLs, and strains the hip flexor muscles, the deep muscles that lift the legs as you walk or tilt the pelvis. If you carry a small child on your hip, you tilt the hip to one side. Much low back pain is cause by an imbalance in the muscles, especially while doing an activity like carrying a child. While washing dishes, change your posture to a more relaxed, aligned posture by bending the knees slightly and bending forward from the waist with a flat back instead of slumping into the counter. If you have a small child, get a sling or comfortable carrier like an Ergo to balance the weight. Wear your baby in different positions for both your and your baby’s comfort. While wearing a child, be sure to squat to pick up things from the floor instead of bending over, which can strain the back.
If you sit a lot, which between the office and the car and the couch most people do, your back pain may be caused by strain on the back surface of the spinal muscles and discs, as well as from overstretched QLs. Standing up and stretching back gently as often as possible can help. Also include side stretches to relax the back muscles. Keep in mind that your body is three dimensional and integrated: your side and stomach muscles connect to and affect your back, as do the hip and leg muscles. Gently stretching and strengthening the entire body is key in any chronic body pain.
The best exercise I’ve found for low back pain is belly dancing. Yoga and weight lifting can help if the instructor knows of your low back problems and is careful to address them, but belly dancing, which is designed to protect the low back while strengthening the surrounding muscles, is truly the best exercise I’ve ever done for my back. Men would benefit, too, from learning a few moves just in the interest of protecting their backs. Insurance companies would do well to cover belly dancing classes, preventing costly back surgeries. (I’m not being facetious.)
Finally, a word about the psychological and emotional aspects of low back pain. The lumbar vertebrae are designed to support the organs, neck, and head. Chronic low back problems can, therefore, be about feeling unsupported. My own back pain is worse when I have too much to do, when I’m not making enough money, and when I have to care for my child alone. While the physical strain on my back during these times is clearly a factor, the emotional aspect plays a part as well. Getting the support you need, talking to a trusted friend or therapist about any feelings of fear or anger, and taking it easy as possible can also help your pain. Once several years ago, my back pain went away literally overnight after I got a much needed job.
Take care of your back by being aware of your posture and working to balance the muscles surrounding the low back and hips. Over time, your back pain will heal, and you will be able to move with the vigor and strength you were once used to.