Got lower back pain? You’re not alone. Over 80% of us live with lower back pain*, most of which is not caused by disc injury or serious illness. But if you’ve been trying to relieve the pain with some serious stretching, you might be making it worse.
The most common cause of back pain that we see in our Yoga Therapy Clinic is poor postural habits. If you spend a lot of time sitting or driving, it’s going to take more than a general work out to keep you pain free. And going for the burn with some killer back stretches could be compounding your woes. Here are two back pain myths that could be preventing you from living pain-free.
BACK PAIN MYTH #1
“A long, strong forward bend will stretch out my back and relieve my pain.”
If you’ve spent most of the day driving and sitting at a desk, you’ve already been sat in a forward bending position for hours on end. Doing this day in, day out causes the back muscles to become both weak and tight. Pushing into forward bends, especially if you have tight hamstrings, can be counterproductive. In poses such as Pascimottanasana, it’s easy for tight muscles to become over stretched and, in the worst case, can lead to disc injuries.
Here’s something about tight muscles that I want you to remember. The opposite of ‘tension’ is not ‘stretching.’ The opposite of ‘tension’ is ‘relaxation’.
Before you push yourself into a stretch, start by doing some poses to relax the muscles of your lower back. Lying on your back with your legs up on the seat of a chair is a good option. Once you’ve relaxed those back muscles, there’s something else we need to do for them besides stretching them out. It’s time to build some core support.
BACK PAIN MYTH #2
“Core strength improves back pain, so doing crunchies will help”
Picture yourself at your desk or driving your car. Your body is in a forward bending position that shortens the muscles at the front of your body, causing the ones at the back to become tight and weak. Now picture yourself doing a crunchie. Same thing.
Core strength doesn’t mean a sculpted six-pack. It’s about having strength and tone in the deep postural muscles such as the transverse abdominis and multifidi which work in tandem to support your frame. Crunchies just don’t cut it. Once you’ve relaxed your lower back, move into postures that gradually strengthen those deep core muscles.
The transverse abdominis muscle is layered beneath the obliques and sits towards the front and side of the abdominal area. To activate this muscle, take a deep breath and then exhale fully. Exhaling is usually a passive activity, but make this one active, consciously drawing the lower belly back towards the spine in order to breathe every last drop of air out of your lungs. Now you can feel your transverse abdominis. Strengthen this muscle by practicing plank pose and activating the transverse abdominis on the exhale, or move from hands and knees to downward facing dog as you perform this active exhale.
The multifidi muscles run all the way down the spine, but we’re primarily concerned by the lumbar spine, where it attaches to the sacrum and each of the lumbar vertebrae. To activate the lumbar multifidi, try dynamic Parsvottanasana. From tadasana (standing), step your left foot back as if you were about to perform Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1). Inhale to raise your arms and exhale to fold forward from the hip creases. If your lower back is sore, do this with your hands on your hips. If your back is very sore, place a chair in front of you and bring your hands down as far as the chair seat, rather than coming all the way to the floor. As you inhale, lengthen forwards and come up again to your starting position. Repeat 4 times on each side. Please note, the important part is coming up to standing – don’t hang out in the forward bend before lifting back up!
So next time you get home with a sore lower back, don’t drop into a deep forward bend or head to the gym to work on your six-pack. Start by relaxing the lower back and then, slowly and gradually, work with poses that activate the deep core muscles.
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*Medical Journal of Australia
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.