Next to getting regular bodywork, stretching can really help relieve pain and stiffness in your low back. Many people don’t realize that chronic tightness in the front and/or back of the hips is often the cause of their low back symptoms.
Quick (super basic) anatomy lesson:
- Your psoas muscle (“so-as”) runs along the front of your hip.
- It’s your strongest hip flexor, attaching along the front and side of your lumbar (lower) spine and then again on the lesser trochanter of your femur (inside of the hip joint, near the groin). When this muscle gets tight it can create a forward pull on your low back, causing pain.
- Your piriformis muscle is on the back of your hip, underneath your glute max muscle.
- It attaches on the front of the sacrum (where the base of your spine connects into your pelvis), threads through the sciatic notch to the back of the pelvis, then connects to the greater trochanter of your femur (outside of the hip joint). The sciatic nerve runs under this muscle. When the piriformis is chronically tight, it can irritate the sciatic nerve, causing inflammation and “sciatica” symptoms. This is often referred to as Piriformis Syndrome.
(Many other muscles can cause low back pain. For this article we’re focusing on the psoas and piriformis, since they seem to be a fairly common issue.)
regular bodywork is your best bet for releasing these areas, whether it’s from a massage therapist or physical therapist. however, there are a few stretches that, when performed correctly, may give you some relief.
To release the psoas:
Come to a half-kneeling position on your right knee with your left foot forward. Place your hands on your hips to keep them square. Tuck your tailbone forward by engaging your glute muscles in the back of your hips and your abs. Keeping your tailbone tucked, slowly bring your hips forward until you feel a gentle stretch (no pain) in the front of your right hip – it won’t take much. Don’t let your right hip angle back – pretend that you have headlights on the front of your hips and keep them both pointing forward. Hold the stretch for 15-20 seconds, then repeat on the left side.
To release the piriformis:
Sit in a chair, with both feet on the floor. Lift your right foot and lay your right leg (just above the ankle) across your left knee. (Some folks may already feel a stretch in the back of the right hip at this point). Gently press down on your right knee, bringing your lower leg parallel to the floor, or until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of the right hip. Once you’ve found a gentle stretch (or even if you haven’t), then engage your abs/core to support your low back and slowly bring your chest forward, keeping the low back straight (don’t round it). When you’ve found the right depth for a good stretch (without pain), hold that for 15-20 seconds, then repeat on the left side.
To gently stretch the low back after the hip stretches:
Stand up. Exhale and bend forward, with a slight bend in your knees, and lightly place your hands on your lower thighs (just above the knees). Inhale and bend your knees more, bringing your hips down and sitting back a bit like you’re going to sit in a chair. Exhale and (mostly) straighten your knees, moving back into the forward bend. Flow back and forth with your breath, inhaling to your “sitting” position, and exhaling back to your forward bend. Keep your knees bent enough so that you don’t feel much stretch in the back of your legs – you want to target the gentle stretch to your low back. You’ll find that after 3 or 4 repetitions, you’ll be a little deeper in the forward bend.
Be compassionate with yourself.
Don’t push any stretch to the point of pain – less is more, as overstretching can bring its own complications. Do these stretches daily, and you’ll find that as your hips loosen up and are able to move better, your low back will improve as well. And if not, then there could be other muscles at play – give us a call at (970) 829-1292 and we’ll help you work it out!