Lower back pain is one of the most common conditions in adults as we age. Years of poor posture, one side dominant living (being left-handed or right-handed), and the fact that we don’t live balanced lives can often lead to physical pain and discomfort. Understanding the muscles and structure involved, even on a very basic level, can help when it comes to getting out of pain.
The spine has 5 parts: Cervical (7 vertebrae in the neck), Thoracic (12 vertebrae with ribs attached), Lumbar (5 vertebrae in the lower back), and the Sacrum (triangular bone at the back of the pelvis) and the Coccyx (tailbone). The Sacrum and Coccyx are made up of fused vertebral bones that we now consider single bones in and of themselves. The area of discussion in this post will be the Lumbar region that makes up the lower back.
As you can see from the photo above, there is a natural curvature of the spine in both directions depending on the part of the spine. The lumbar spine should be slightly lordotic, which means that the spine curves toward the front of the body. A diagnosis of “lordosis” is having too much curve in that direction. When the spine is “neutral,” it should have a small lordotic curve.
While there are many related muscles that affect the lower back, and I will discuss some of them in next week’s post, today’s muscles are the Erector Spinae group and the Quadratus Lumborum.
Erector Spinae is a group of muscles that run vertically up and down the back of the torso (see graphic). As the name implies, they help us stand erect. These 3 muscles run alongside the spine and are extensors, which means they contract when we bend backward, and stretch when we bend forward. These muscles can feel tight from both being overly contracted and overly stretched. When you “sit at a desk” for a living, typically the tightness we feel comes from these muscles being overly stretched.
When you are sitting for long periods of time, slouching tends to set in. Slouching causes rounding of the lower back and we fall to the back edge of our sit bones (ischial tuberosities–bones at the base of the pelvis, upon which we sit). There is nothing inherently wrong with rounding the lower back, it can be a great stretch (like in Cat pose), but if you are sitting rounded for long periods of time, and only stretching the muscle, it can strain. Sitting with your pelvis in a vertical position gives a very gentle contraction to this muscle group and can relieve the tightness we feel.
Quadratus Lumborum (affectionately called the QL) sits on either side of the lumbar spine and runs from the 12 rib to the posterior aspect of the Iliac Crest, with attachments on the transverse processes of all 5 lumbar vertebrae. This deep muscle group is the source of a lot of lower back pain. It stabilizes our lumbar area as well as creates lateral flexion (side bending). Our one-side dominant lifestyle often causes one side to over work, and the other side to under work. Therefore, when we stand upright, we are often actually tilted to one side.
Check it out for yourself. Stand in front of a full length mirror and close your eyes. Stand up straight. Open your eyes and see if what feels straight actually is straight; chances are, you are slightly tilted to one side. Notice if you shoulders or ribs are uneven left to right. This is often due to tightness of one of your QL muscles.
Side bending stretches can help, but be sure to stretch to both sides. Even if only one side feels tight, the side that feels tight is not always the side that is tight. Remember, “tightness” as a sensation can be misleading in that it can feel tight when it has been overly stretched. Notice to which side you have less lateral (side) movement when you bend; that is the side on which you want to spend a little more time.
Simple Yoga Stretches To Relieve Lower Back Pain
Cat/Cow: Start on your hands and knees (Table pose), with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Inhale. As you exhale, start by moving the pelvis and round the spine from the tailbone to the top of the head, one vertebra at a time (as best you can). Feel the shoulder blades spread apart (Protraction) as you press the palms firmly into the floor. This is Cat pose.
As you inhale, again start with the pelvis, and reverse the curve in your spine from the tailbone to the top of your head. Lift up out of the shoulders so that you are not shrugging. Feel the shoulder blades slightly pulling toward your spine (Retraction) as you move your chest forward and your shoulders backward (keeping the shoulder joint over the wrists). This is Cow pose.
Go back and forth between Cat and Cow 5 times, moving slowly with your breath. Move each part of the spine intentionally. Feel the front body contracting with Cat pose and stretching with Cow pose. Feel the back body stretching with Cat pose and contracting with Cow pose. These poses affect the Erector Spinae muscle group.
Side Bending: These stretches affect the Quadratus Lumborum. The poses can be done either seated or standing, and there are numerous variations. Here are just a couple.
Seated: You can either sit in a chair or on the floor in a comfortable cross-legged position with the right leg crossed in front of the left. Reach the right arm up overhead as you inhale. As you exhale, lift the right ribs upward away from the right hip and side bend to the left. Try not to collapse into your left side, imagine lifting up and over a beach ball on your left side. Feel the right sit bone pressing into the chair or the floor. Hold this position for 3-5 deep, slow breaths. Repeat to the other side with the left leg crossed in front.
Standing: Stand with your feet parallel and hip distance apart (which is not how wide you think your hips are, just the distance apart of your sit bones–typically 3-4 inches). Inhale and raise your right arm overhead like we did while seated. As you exhale, lift the right ribs away from the pelvis and side bend to the left. Again, try not to collapse that left side, you are moving up and over another beach ball. Feel the right fingers and right heel pressing away from each other. Stay 3-5 breaths and repeat to the left.
Click here to watch a 4 minute video guiding you through these stretches.
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