If you’ve ever suffered from a lower back injury, chances are that you’ve had a degree of low back stiffness that’s been present, before, during or after the back “pain”. Often the first reaction is that the back is stiff, tight and in need of stretching or moving, but what if this is a misinterpretation of the tension that you feel in the lower back? This week we’ll be looking at the causes of stiffness characterising lower back injuries and more importantly what you can do to alleviate the stiffness for the long term.
Why your lower back will be stiff or tight
Three of the main reasons for the feeling of stiffness in the lower back are outlined below. This is vital to understand as the common thought is that stiffness in the lower back requires movement and stretching. As we’ll see, by understanding the causes of the stiffness we can appreciate whether stretching is relevant or not.
Stiffness caused by excess inflammation
Although this can sometimes feel more like a “pressure” in the lower back, we have to take stock of the reality that the lower back is a series of bony tubes. When injuries occur in these regions, the bony tubes are much more rigid compared to the soft tissues of an ankle, for example. Even in the case of an injured ankle, the swelling quickly increases the pressure in the region leading to a sensation of stiffness. The same is true for the lower back. Only in this case it can occur undetected as we cannot see the swelling. It is important to acknowledge, this build up of inflammation is in response to an injury and therefore there will also be a degree of tissue compromise.
Stiffness caused by muscle spasm in the area
As with nearly all injuries, even an “injury” to the stomach, i.e. inflammation in the bowel because of an irritant, you will suffer from contraction of muscles, in this example, the abdominals. The lower back, when injured, will frequently experience a degree of muscle spasm. The muscles in the region will reflexively contract and this has a dual impact. Firstly, it will create a degree of stiffness in the lower back, primarily trying to prevent you from moving and doing further damage. Secondarily, the problem with this contracture is that it exerts more pressure across the joint, and therefore is likely to aggravate the very tissue that is injured. In other joints this tends not to be a factor, however in the spine, as the discs are so frequently involved, this further compression is unhelpful to say the least.
If we think of a damaged medial collateral ligament, a ligament providing stability to the inner side of your knee joint, the muscle spasm protecting this region can logically have a protective function and sounds reasonable, unfortunately the back is just a little more peculiar.
Stiffness from doing nothing at all!
This is the confusing one in some cases, it is to say the stiffness from just sitting in your office. This occurs more as a combination of the previous factors. Fundamentally, you’re often not sitting in the best position, which aggravates the injury in the first instance. You’re there for longer than you should be without moving to prevent build up of excess inflammation, therefore contributing to a previously mentioned cause of the stiffness. Additionally, the muscles are held in a chronically stretched position as a result of such slouched seated postures. Muscles do not like to be held in tension for long periods of time, and holding them stretched out for hours while you’re at work, plugged into the workstation is a recipe for back stiffness.
What’s happening when you injure your low back
Granted you can injure muscles, but this is usually a significant trauma, and in the process of damaging a muscle, the failure at the point of damage, for example, on a maximal deadlift, would result in significant and rapid exposure of the joints as the muscle fails. Joints have their integrity thanks to the ligaments that support them. These ligaments and other “articular structures” such as the meniscus in the knee and the spinal discs in the low back, work together to provide a degree of integrity to the joint, a degree of natural stiffness, so that the joint can be then moved by the muscles.
When you have an injury to the back, the structures that maintain this joint tension (that we are unaware of) have failed in one way or another. Just talk to anyone who suffers with serious hypermobility disorder, difficulty with frequent dislocation of joints is a terrible challenge. This is because their joint stiffening structures are just not as stiff – genetically.
Your body however, has developed with this stiffness to all the joints, it is not something that you “do” per se, but something that “is”. When you then injure or compromise these structures, your body is shocked. All of a sudden, there is movement that didn’t used to be there, this could be pulling on some of the injured tissues causing pain, but more likely it is the simple atypical movement that occurs. For example, you are used to the ground being solid at all times. If however the floor suddenly started moving, your whole body would stiffen up!
Is more stretching here the answer?
Another analogy would be surfing. The beginner simply is not used to this movement taking place when trying to stand up and therefore everything gets stiff!
Is more stretching or mobility exercises the answer here?
There is a time and a place for stretching but too many jump right in assuming this is the case with lower back injuries and it simply is the root cause of why so many turn a minor back issue into a chronic one.
How to alleviate the stiffness in your lower back
Firstly we want to acknowledge the source of this stiffness and that stretching is not the answer. Instead, we need to focus on offering a degree of stability back to this area, this is providing conscious stiffness to the lower back by way of gaining control over your core.
Simple upright activities with good posture such as walking to alleviate the lower back stiffness can work in the short term. The subtle movements and pressure changes from a short walk within tolerable limits is more than sufficient to help the removal of excess inflammation in the lower back. Of course contrast bathing and icing for short bursts can be a helpful tool here too. But these are temporary measures.
Next we will cover some step-by-step actions to help you deal with this once and for all. And once you have finished this episode, do check out the episode we did on working with lower back pain as this has some great strategies for those of you that are deskbound for your occupation, It will help make your workstation more back health friendly.
Step 1: gain conscious control of your core
This sounds silly but too many progress with a false sense of security that they know how to engage their core. Prior experience with things like Yoga, Pilates or just working out in the gym can sometimes make this as difficult a skill to get right as ladies that have had a c-section and are understandably “disconnected” from the core.
You need to foster the ability to engage the core musculature without straining and without rocking your pelvis into a pelvic tuck. The deep core musculature should be usable and tighten just like a corset would. Bridging the gap between your pelvic girdle and your rib cage. Start learning to do this engagement hookingthe motion to your out-breath. Also you should focus on the region of your core between your belly button and your pubic bones. This is the region that many struggle to activate, and the region that is at the level of the lower lumbar spine.
Know that the use of breathing out as you engage, completely, is a beginner exercise to help you feel what you should feel, you do not have to continue this exercise once you’re consciously able to engage the core correctly at will!
Step 2: integrate core stability with your hip movement
Developing strong hips that have good mobility is vital for long term back health but also tremendously valuable in the short term too. When you’re recovering from a lower back injury the main risk is that movement translates into the lower back. The skill of being able to provide stability to the lower back via the core engagement, and then allow your hips to take up the lion’s share of the required movement will make all the difference, reducing the risk of relapse tremendously.
We discussed the inextricable link between your hip health and lower back injuries on a recent podcast, so it is highly probable that if you have a lower back injury that’s been long lasting, your hip health is substandard too. With this in mind, you should give yourself some time to make the necessary improvements and make sure you are focusing on good technical application of the movements such as squat, and lunges to ensure that you do not create more issues.
Step 3: scale the process to get your back in shape
Ultimately the process above, with the simple exercise movements is what works. With time improving your ability to bear more load as you perform exercises such as the squat and lunge, will be what helps your back repair. Be careful though. Technique is a must as mentioned earlier, listen to your body and observe your technique as you add resistance via bands, or weights. This process is essential for not only strengthening the muscles in the short term so they can more effectively protect your lower back as it is healing, but it also helps no end for the long term!
Commit to lasting results and transformed back health
Your body changes with time, good things come to those who are consistent over the long term. Healing is one factor, but remodelling and re-strengthening is what gets you what you really want. To be rid of this back pain for the long term. Know that the process of remodelling takes time, this is whereby the healing has taken place, but the tissues are weaker than the surrounding tissues. With time and consistent progressive application of “Step 3” you will give your body the direction and stimulation required to signal “how strong” you want those joint supporting tissues that were injured to rebuild to.
In doing this, you’ll find that the stiffness in your lower back that was an unwelcome, but daily occurrence, is a thing of the past!
Too many of us have not been educated that resistance based exercise is probably one of the most impactful things we can do for our back health, reducing the risk of injury, chronicity and increasing the rate of recovery if we are unlucky enough to get injured.
Noone can stop themselves from becoming ill or injured forever, accidents will happen. What we can do however, is build resilience in our body. We touched on a more nuanced angle to this whole body health that comes as a result of resistance training in last week’s episode, a review of the Forever Strong book, which is certainly worth checking out if you have the time.