In our Bulletproof Your Back Series (follow along on our Instagram page!), we're bringing our clients 4 videos to help them improve back pain. We go through
If you are suffering from a form of low back pain, work your way through these videos and see how you can improve your back pain.
As you wander through your bedroom in the early morning, reaching for shelves that seem to shift as you approach, you realize how helpless you are without your eyesight. Instead of walking, you carefully scootch your feet step by step, hands forward like a zombie, into the inky outline of a bathroom door.
Now it may come as a ‘duh’ kind of question, but why would we do this? Why would we modify our behavior to accomplish a goal that could easily have been accomplished much faster and efficiently if we just marched right through the dark towards what we thought was the bathroom?
I’ll allow these gifs to speak for me:
We modified our behavior based on those memories of SLAMMING our toe into that damn table one too many times, just as we modify our behavior when anything incredibly painful happens to us. Remember that time you sprained your ankle when trail running? I’m sure you learned to be more careful with your steps! Remember that time you played volleyball for four hours and woke up like a train rolled over you, backed up, then body slammed you? Sure you do.
You remember. Your body remembers. And, due to these memories, we do our best to make good decisions to avoid these painful problems in the future.
The reason I’m telling you these stories is to paint a picture that our body and mind remember injuries, and that these injuries that may have occurred decades ago are still affecting our bodies today. Don’t believe me about your body remembering injuries? Research shows a good ability to predict osteoarthritis in patients decades before it occurs… the main predictor is if they’ve had a knee surgery or injury.1,2 That osteoarthritis is your body’s ‘bad memory’ of your bad night you messed up that knee. And your mind remembers injuries just fine as well… just think of one of your many injuries and I’m sure it’s as vivid as a firework on the 4th.
Growing from these painful metaphorical and literal memories is a major challenge, and that challenge is met daily with the help of proper physical therapy treatment; to reset your body’s movement and your mind’s pathologically-based control of your body in order to imprint a new patterning system that accommodates your injury. In short: Unlearn old patterns. Build new ones. Grow.
Let’s go through a typical case of how I teach my patients to build these new patterns:
Bob Smithy Jones Fake Name Jr III comes into the clinic with back pain due to paratrooping since he was 5. He’s now 31 and his lumbar spine is comprised mostly of Legos and popcorn. He likes to deadlift small horses and fight yoga instructors to pass the time, but his lower back isn’t letting him do the things he loves. Bob is desperate. He knows he has to live with this spine for the rest of his life and is concerned with what the future holds. After going through a thorough physical movement and manual assessment, I see half a dozen regions that are contributing to Bob’s pain and dysfunction.
His mechanical memories are leaping out at me from each of my assessments, and his compensations are showing me exactly how he has been subconsciously “avoiding stubbing his toe” for decades. His mental memories are evident every time he guards, takes a sharp breath, or shows hesitation when trying a new exercise. The good news is, the more time I spend with him, the more I can help him!
Breaking these movement dysfunctions down, one by one, session by session, into compartmentalized pearls of digestible information for him to relearn movement is the treatment program. Some of these memories need to be processed with manual therapy, stretching, and motor control training. Some of these memories need to be processed with a good dose of strength training. Through time, grit, and trust, these memories no longer have their teeth around the throat of Bob’s aspirations. The “memories” such as osteoarthritis will always be there, but with the dozens and dozens of pearls in his toolbox, he is able to manage and grow into a new version of his old self. He is also better able to step back and contextualize the different types of pain he feels and is less fearful of his future. This is growth.
Our mind is a powerful thing. Our bodies are equally powerful. Each of them twist together into a complex story that many times involves loss, pain, fear, and sadness. As a working clinician, I see this day in and day out, which is why I am so motivated to help my patients’ minds and bodies learn new movement memories they need to better live the lives they deserve. With work, these old movement memories are reprogrammed into a new movement system that can give a fresh capacity to the function of the previously painful and weak movement patterns.
Thanks for reading,
Marcus Rein, PT, DPT, CF-L1
I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. A sharp popping sensation in my back and then an odd, almost warm tingling feeling down my left leg. I knew it wasn’t good, and I should have known better.
This was my first week at an infantry brigade I had been assigned to in 2011. I was the only physical therapist assigned to a group of 3,500 soldiers. My job was to treat all injuries, teach injury prevention classes, and help with human performance optimization. I was also attached to an infantry brigade so that meant a lot of physical training and ruck marching.
On my fourth day assigned to this group, I went on a Thursday morning ruck march. For those of you that don’t know, ruck marching is basically walking around while wearing a 50-pound backpack. This morning we had gone on an 8-mile ruck march. When I finished, I dropped my rucksack (i.e heavy ass backpack) and stood around talking with the other soldiers. As I was leaving, I bent over to pick up my rucksack and that’s when I felt the pop.
I immediately knew something was wrong, but the last thing I wanted to do was get hurt in front of all my soldiers. I was the guy assigned to this group to make sure people didn’t get hurt and there I was in excruciating back pain trying to act like I was fine. I managed to make it to my car before collapsing into my seat. I drove straight to the troop medical clinic to see a fellow physical therapist friend of mine. There was no unringing this bell… the damage was already done.
Over the next six months, I did everything to help fix this back injury I had given myself. Fatigue from the ruck march followed by picking something heavy up, like an idiot, was a recipe for a pretty serious disc injury. I had what’s called an L4-L5 disc prolapse. This caused me to have a lot of numbness and weakness in the back of my left leg.
With a combination of dry needling, hip joint mobilizations, and time, my pain resolved in about six months. It took me roughly another six months before I could get back into deadlifting heavy. 12 months of rehab/recovery from picking up a rucksack wrong. As much as this wasn’t fun, I’m glad it happened to me, and here’s why.
I learned a lot about why I had this back injury in the first place and was able to correct those issues. This injury lead me down the path of better understanding complex movements. I became obsessed with treating my own back and developing protocols to help other people with their back injury. Lastly, I can relate to anyone I see with a back injury on a much deeper level than someone who’s never hurt their back.
I also got to see first hand that disc injuries do heal. Even when I was in school, the thought process was that a disc injury wouldn’t heal. I have an MRI from one month after the injury and three years after the injury. The MRI from one month post injury shows a significant disc prolapse that’s pressing on a nerve. The MRI from three years post injury looks completely normal. The body heals on the inside just as it does when you get a cut on your skin. It fills in, heals, and you have a scar as a reminder of the thing that happened.
Dealing with a disc injury can be extremely frustrating. Here’s my advice to you if you’re currently dealing with one from my own experience and from all of the back injuries I’ve seen:
I hope this helps and I hope you realize that you can heal. Your body is incredible and often times it just needs time and the right approach to do so.
If you’re in the Atlanta area and are currently dealing with a back injury, we need to talk. We’ve helped thousands of people in Atlanta get back to a pain-free, active life, and we can help you as well.
Click the “Get Started” button below, leave us your information and one of our team members will reach out to find out if you’re an ideal fit for what we do.
Thanks so much for reading,
I recently attended a continuing education course called Functional Range Conditioning (FRC). It was one that has been on my list for quite some time and it was awesome to finally check it out.
In this blog post, I’m going to expand upon some of the principles and techniques I learned and how you can start to implement this in your daily movement practice.
First, let’s define a few words. What is flexibility? What is mobility? Are they the same thing? We hear these words used interchangeably. However, they are in fact different.
The foundation of the FRC system is based on the acquisition and maintenance of functional mobility and articular health. It is very dependent on your passive and active range of motions.
Basically, the goal is to make your AROM and PROM the same. PROM is the prerequisite which will allow you to improve your AROM.
FRC utilizes a concept called “bioflow.” While I don’t get too caught up in systems or their coined terms, I’m cool with this one. It basically talks about tissue continuity (gross tissue --> cellular --> intracelluar) calling it STUFF. Stuff being cells, fibers, and ground substance. Composition of these components dictate the type and physical properties of a certain tissue whether it's bone, fascia, ligament, tendon, muscle, capsule etc. Cell signaling and progressive adaptation is how these cells change into these different structures. Think about an ACL graft that is harvested from a patellar tendon – do you think it stays a tendon over time or evolves to becoming a ligament just like the initial ACL? Yeah, science is pretty cool.
I could geek out on this stuff all day, but let’s move on to the application of improving your mobility – there’s a few techniques used to start working on making your passive movement more active.
Insert Controlled Articular Rotations (CARS) - Active, rotational movements at the outer limits of articular motion. There’s 3 levels for CARS which are related to isolated blocking, external resistance and amount of irradation. Irradation simply put is the amount of tension you create throughout your body – in nerdy science terms this is also called Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVC) often expressed in percentages.
The best example of irradation is to give someone a hand shake. First, squeeze using your hand, then hand and forearm, then hand, forearm and shoulder, etc. Your grip gets stronger and stronger the more musculature you recruit. The more irradation, the more force you exert. You can use this to dial in higher levels of recruitment while doing your CARS or other FRC techniques. “Force is the language of cells” – one of my favorite quotes at the course.
CARS can be implemented different ways whether that is by focusing specifically on a certain joint or you can take part in the morning CARS routine to give all your synovial joints in your body some love each day.
The next step to continue to work on improving your joint integrity and control is via PAILS and RAILS. PAILS and RAILS are isometric contraction efforts (sometimes combined with stretching) used to communicate with both the connective tissue & neurological systems.
2-3 minutes of stretching to build stretch tolerance, then:
This is a great video by Joe Gambino from Par Four Performance going over the Hip 90/90 PAILS/RAILS.
I see PAIL/RAILS as a way to safely acquire and create control into these newly stretched positions without movement. Basically isometric holds to own a position with increased stretch tolerance.
The next and my most favorite part of the course and system is the End-Range Control techniques. End range is where we see a lot of injuries and tissues breaking down. Why? Well, from a physics standpoint, we’re just not able to produce as much force at these end ranges due to length-tension relationships. Another big factor is because we rarely go there. And when we do, we typically aren’t ready for it and are pushed there by accident – which is why we need to train these end ranges. It allows us to build better tissue resilience and reduce the risk of injury. Here’s how we break down end-range control:
End-Range Control: PALS/RALS
Passive Range Holds
Passive Range Lift-Offs
End-Range Rotational Training
My suggestion is don’t get too caught up on the wording of these different techniques, but understand the conceptual framework and you’ll be able to implement this immediately. We all know that we have certain aspects of our joints where our active and passive is not the same. If you’re wanting to improve your squat or overhead position, or if you just want to build up resiliency in different tissues, then give your joints some love with some of these different techniques.
Dr. Ravi Patel, PT, DPT, CSCS
Ok, so now that you’ve stepped up to the bar and have set yourself in a good position by following the “3 B’s” (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, see Part 1 of this series), it’s time to safely pick some weight off the floor.
There are a number of different nuances you can get into when teaching someone how to deadlift, but for this sake of this post we are going to break the lift into two main parts: First Pull and Second Pull.
1. First Pull: This is where you lift the bar from the ground to your knees. During this part of the lift you should be keeping your spine in a neutral position by having your hips and shoulders rise at the same time until the bar reaches your knees. If you let your hips rise faster than your shoulders then you’ll end up rounding your lumbar spine, and if you let your shoulders rise faster than your hips then you’ll end up over-extending your lumbar spine. Both of those approaches increase the shear forces at your vertebra, which our spines are not designed to handle.
2. Second Pull: Once you get the weight past your knees you are entering the second pull of the deadlift. At this point in the movement your main focus needs to be “bringing your hips to the bar”, meaning your shoulders continue to move upwards as your hips move forward towards the barbell.
So the big takeaway here is that, when you initially starting lifting the weight off the floor, you need to keep your hips and shoulders moving in the same direction, at the same rate, until you get to knee height, and at that point you start to shoot your hips forward as your shoulders continue to rise. Sounds simple enough; right? Well, there are techniques you need to also remember in order to not just perform the lift correctly, but to also keep your back out of harm’s ways.
So there you have it. By utilizing appropriate muscle activation, spinal position, breathing mechanics, and biomechanics, you’ll be able to successfully deadlift with less pain and more weight. At Athletes’ Potential we work daily with barbell and strength athletes, so if you’re struggling with pain while you deadlift and live in the Atlanta area, give us a call or fill out the contact request form below!
Thanks for reading,
Dr. Jake, PT, DPT, CSCS
Back pain is such a common complaint that we treat, but what if I told you that back pain can be caused by pelvic floor dysfunction? First, it is important to remember that pain does not equal damage. Second, it is not unusual to experience pain in a different area from where the dysfunction lies. This could be referred from another area or a secondary effect to moving in a weird way due to the dysfunctional area.
Cause and effect in this case is very similar to asking “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”. What we can state confidently, is that your back and your pelvic floor go hand-in-hand. Studies show that folks with low back pain have decreased pelvic floor function compared to those without back pain. Could this be pelvic floor inhibition due to the back pain? Can weakness or over-tension or control issues of the pelvic floor be causing the back pain?
For many, the pelvic floor is very nebulous. What is it anyway? Where is it? What does it look like? Do only women have them? Males do have pelvic floors, but the anatomy is different. For this post, we will referring specifically to the female pelvic floor. But guys- you too can have pelvic floor dysfunction! This image below is a great look at the female pelvic floor and it’s close relationship to the other pelvic and lumbar spine architecture.
The pelvic floor helps to support the weight of your organs, helps with toileting and sexual function, and influences posture and control through pressure within the core. Weakness, over-tension, spasm or damage to the pelvic floor will change the support of the sacroiliac (SI) joint and the forces that we create through the lumbar spine.
If you have addressed your lumbar spine without much change in symptoms, go a different route! Keep in mind, there are other signs of pelvic floor dysfunction, other than leaking urine or back pain. They include painful sex, frequent constipation, the feeling of heaviness in the vagina with jumping/running/bearing down etc.
Addressing the Pelvic Floor
There are 3 areas to cover that address your pelvic floor in a functional way -- position, breathing and bracing. All of these can be applied to any athlete in any setting.
Position- Keeping the ribcage stacked over the pelvis is an important position to maintain, regardless of activity. This sets the canister (“core”) up for optimal function- meaning the diaphragm, pelvic floor, abs and back muscles can work harmoniously to lift the most weight, support the spine and minimize pressure on the pelvic floor.
Breathing- Diaphragmatic breathing is essential for pelvic floor function and decreasing pain around the low back. The pelvic floor mirrors the movement of the diaphragm, so it is a simple way to relax a tight pelvic floor. Also, two major muscles that run from the ribs to the pelvis also have connections to the diaphragm. So deep breaths can work as a gentle mobilization!
Bracing- How do you prepare for heavy loads or challenging positions? If you simply hold your breath and go, you are missing an opportunity to create more tension! Or if you are holding your breath for a position that should not require that much power, you are increasing the workload on your pelvic floor and back for no reason. For example, preparing to lift a couch versus preparing to lift a pencil.
Put simply, if you are lifting something heavy, holding your breath is fair game. IF you do it correctly. If you experience symptoms- low back pain, leaking, heaviness- then do not hold your breath until you seek help for how to correctly brace. Knock the weight down or the mileage down to a place that you do not have symptoms and work there until your tolerance improves.
If you notice you are holding your breath with lifting a small object, such as your purse, then let’s talk breathing. Breathing out on exertion for a task like this will help the pelvic floor contract reflexively and can keep symptoms at bay. Try it out!
Big picture: Back pain does NOT equal back injury. It is very likely that back pain can be decreased and function improved with addressing the pelvic floor as it work with the low back muscles. Check out these simple ways to check your position, breathing and bracing. Often times, pain is a product of HOW you are moving.
If you take a crack at it yourself but just can’t seem to find improvement, reach out to us at Athletes’ Potential. We work with people like you every day to get them back to high functioning lives without pain and with a better understanding of how to move their body.
Thanks for reading!
Dr. Jackie, PT, DPT
“The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness supported by measurable, observable and repeatable results. The program prepares trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable, too. Our specialty is not specializing.”
The quote above was taken directly from CrossFit.com. It describes CrossFit’s mission, and it is undeniable that CrossFit accomplishes its mission of preparing trainees for multiple arenas of physical contingencies. The point of this article is not to argue nor neglect the many benefits associated with CrossFit training. However, even with CrossFit’s ability to program and prepare you for the many physical challenges that life may throw your way, when it comes to building a functionally strong and healthy back, there is one crucial area where CrossFit falls short: multiplanar movement.
Before we talk about how CrossFit doesn't deliver multiplanar movement, first let's look at how our spine moves throughout the day.
Whether we are going to the grocery store, playing softball, or hitting a round of golf, our backs do not move in one dimension. To perform movement efficiently and effectively, our spine must be able to move through a combination of movements in three different planes: frontal, sagittal, and transverse.
In order to fully bulletproof our backs and prevent back pain from occurring, not only must we be able to move through these three planes of movement, but we must be able to strongly control our spine throughout each motion and this is where CrossFit falls short.
The world of CrossFit lives in the sagittal plane. Squats, deadlifts, snatches, burpees, kettlebell swings, muscle-ups, toes-to-bar, double-unders, Fran, Murph, Gracie, and Annie. What do all of these have in common? In all these movements and exercises your back is predominantly bending forwards and backwards, meaning in all these movements your back is moving in the sagittal plane only. There are very few movements in CrossFit that require you to challenge your back rotationally or laterally and as you’ll see below, that’s a problem.
Holding your child at your side, swinging a bat/club/racket, getting in and out of your car, serving a volleyball, opening a door, and kicking a ball. What do all of these activities have in common? These are all movements commonly found in sports and in daily routines and they all challenge your back rotationally and laterally. Not only are these multiplanar movements incredibly common, but because CrossFit doesn’t address frontal or transverse plane movements, if you aren’t doing any type of accessory training, you’re going to be weak in two-thirds of the required movement patterns, and you’re going to be at a greater chance of developing back pain.
So does this mean that CrossFit is terrible and you should stop doing all those squats, deadlifts, and other aforementioned CrossFit workouts? Absolutely not. Sagittal plane movement is crucial to our everyday lives (i.e., bending over to pick something off the floor, getting up from a chair, etc.), it just isn’t the complete picture. You’re leaving your back vulnerable to injury if you aren’t working on getting strong in the other two planes of movement.
The solution to this problem is simple though, you just have to take the time make sure you’re putting in the work. To get an idea of how to start training in the frontal and transverse planes, try adding in some of our favorite transverse and frontal plane strengthening exercises either before or after your next WOD. Perform 3-4 sets of each exercise to form fatigue.
Chop and Lift (multiplanar)
Pallof Press with shoulder flexion (transverse plane)
Single-Arm Farmers Carry (frontal plane)
At Athletes’ Potential not only do we help CrossFit athletes with low back pain all the time, but we are CrossFit athletes ourselves. We take immense pride in thoroughly understanding your sport, what its strengths are, and where there may be some deficits. If you’re a CrossFit athlete living in Atlanta, and you’re struggling with back pain, we’d love to help you. Give us a call at 470-355-2106 or fill out the contact request form and we’ll contact you.
Thanks for reading,
-Dr. Jake, PT, DPT, CSCS
That’s a funny cartoon, but back pain is no joke. Chronic low back pain is the leading cause of disability in the world. Throughout our lives, 80% of us will experience low back pain. So why do some recover completely while others have chronic, sometimes debilitating, back pain?
As movement specialists, we (physical therapists) often want to explain the why of pain with muscles, joints, and movement patterns. Sure, we can work on asymmetries in movement and perceived muscle weakness but for chronic pain this is only a small piece of the puzzle.
Back pain can be particularly frustrating for a few reasons. For one, imaging does not directly correlate to pain nor does it change conservative treatment strategies. Also, improvement from back pain often has ups and downs, sometimes with no indication of what causes it.
What NOT to do if you have back pain:
Going straight to the orthopedic for back pain can start a cascade of chronic back pain. Lumbar spine imaging should not be the first line of care for back pain. I see it too often - either the imaging shows something that seems “scarier” than the pain the patient feels OR the pain is quite intense but the image shows nothing out of the ordinary. The latter tends to be the most frustrating. If there is nothing torn, bulging, ripped, degenerating (insert any other terrible descriptor here), then why the heck does my back hurt SO BADLY?
Our nervous system is extraordinary because it has the ability to adapt and change with our stimuli- inside and out. This becomes a problem when it adapts in a way that we call “central sensitization.” Essentially, the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) becomes extra sensitive to stimuli. So something that should cause little pain, or none at all, sends serious threat signals to the brain which leads to pain.
The best analogy commonly used is the house alarm. If a burglar breaks the window in my house, I expect the alarm to sound. However, if a tree branch scrapes the window, I do not expect the alarm to sound. But with central sensitization, the alarm does go off. And this alarm is PAIN.
Check out this cool video about chronic pain. It only takes a few minutes: Explain Pain
Is it a false alarm?
Based on the healing rates for tissues in the body, we know that after a few years into back pain, the pain is not stemming from actual tissue damage. If there continues to be pain similar to the original onset, it is likely that there are some central nervous system changes.
When working through this with patients, it always starts with education so that they understand I am acknowledging that they feel the pain but also that they understand pain DOES NOT equal damage. To progress towards improved function and a pain-free active lifestyle, we focus on repetition of basic movements that may or may not be painful. The idea is to train the neurological system that simple bending over should not be threatening or painful. That being said, sometimes it is painful! In that case, I set the following rules: if the pain is low level and constant we are ok to work in that range, and if pain begins to escalate throughout the movement we will take a break. But as you build resilience and confidence through the movement range, you will experience less pain and the central nervous system will lessen the threat associated with that movement.
At Athletes’ Potential, we treat a lot of back pain. A story that we hear often is that people have bounced between providers, tried more severe/invasive treatments, long term use of pain meds or anti-inflammatory drugs, etc., but still have pain! We specialize in helping people maintain a pain-free, high-level, and active lifestyle. Whether this looks like running marathons, lifting heavy weights, or playing with your kids, we can help you get there. If this sounds like your past and the future you want, give us a call. We would love to help!
Thanks for reading,
We recently had a patient come in who had been dealing with low back pain for over a year. He was super active, training 5-6 days per week, but hurt his back one day simply standing up from a chair. He had seen his family practitioner periodically for steroid injections, which would provide some relief for a couple months but then end up right back to square one. Frustrated with his lingering back pain, he gave us a call and after a thorough evaluation, some manual techniques, and exercise programming, he left our office with decreased pain and improved mobility.
We see patients like this all the time here at Athletes’ Potential… which makes total sense. Back pain can happen with some with some of the most innocuous movements, and in many cases, without warning. In fact, On average 80% of Americans will experience low back pain at some point in their lives and more than a quarter of the population currently deals with low back pain on any given day.
Not only have most people had some form of back pain, but it many cases it is the result of poor movement patterns that have been abused for years causing the root of their problem to be both incredibly complex and multifactorial. Great news though! Whether you hurt your back trying to hit a new deadlift PR or simply bending over to put your kid in their car seat, there’s a profession out there, armed with years of training and knowledge, designed perfectly to help with your low back pain: Doctors of Physical Therapy.
Here are some of the reasons why you should see a doctor of physical therapy the next time you’re experiencing back pain.
Advanced Education: Physical therapists go through seven rigorous years of both academic and clinical training in order to become Doctors of Physical Therapy. We have spent seven years in school studying human anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, and tissue histology. In other words, we know how the body moves, how it heals, and how to optimally restore its strength and mobility in order to get you to your goals.
Multiple Treatment Options: As I mentioned earlier back pain can be pretty complex, requiring multiple different treatment options to not only alleviate your symptoms, but correct the underlying problem that caused the issue in the first place. Unlike other healthcare professionals, doctors of physical therapy have the ability to choose from multiple different tools in their toolbox. Whether this means using corrective exercises, dry needling, joint manipulations (cracking your back), soft tissue mobilizations, taping, or wrapping, a physical therapist has the ability to customize the most appropriate treatment program for you.
Patient Empowerment: More than anything else, a physical therapist's ability to educate you the patient is invaluable to your recovery. There are 168 hours in a week, at most you’ll see a physical therapist 3 times per week for an hour...that still leaves 165 hours where you’re on your own. Compliance is crucial. For true long-term changes to happen versus short-term reductions in symptoms, you have to know what you should and should not being doing, and physical therapists are second-to-none in making sure that is exactly what happens. Additionally, after you’ve had back pain once, there is a 90% chance you’ll have back pain again at some point in the future. Think of it this way, after you roll your ankle once, you’ll more than likely roll your ankle again at some point. Don’t panic though, the education and coaching you’ll receive from your physical therapist will allow you to know exactly what to do in order alleviate most future back pain exacerbations in a few days instead of weeks, months, or even years.
In review, you’re not alone in your back pain. In fact, it’s more likely than not that you’ll experience some form of back pain in your life. However, this doesn’t take away the fact that back pain can hinder your daily activities and keep you from what you enjoy most. Physical therapists are highly trained musculoskeletal experts that not only help patients alleviate their low back pain, but keep it away by empowering them to take their healthcare into their own hands.
If you’ve living in Atlanta, and you’re struggling with back pain, we’d love to help you. Give us a call at 470-355-2106, or fill out the contact request form and we’ll contact you.
Thanks for reading,
-Dr. Jake, PT, DPT, CSCS
One of my patients woke up the other day with pain that started on one side of her lower back and radiated down her hip, hamstring and into the side of calf. She told me this while I was making pancakes on Saturday morning for our kids. My wife is my number one patient so I’m writing this blog post for her. I know that many of you suffer from some degree of pain radiating down a leg as well. My goal with this blog post is to teach you a few simple strategies to ease these symptoms.
Let’s start by defining sciatica. It’s actually an umbrella term describing pain that radiates along the course of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is a huge nerve that starts in the lower back. It comes together and courses down the hip, through the hamstring and then branches into two other nerves at the height of the knee. If you’ve ever sat on something hard like a wallet for too long on one side, you may have experienced some short term sciatica.
What sciatica is and what causes sciatica are two separate things. Sciatica itself is the pain/irritation you feel down the leg. The cause of sciatica can be a number of different things.
First, it could be coming from your lower back. This could be due to a bad disc herniation, poor movement at the small joints in the lower back, lack of mobility in the hip and even prolonged positional pressure like sitting on a plane to Australia.
Because of the many varying causes for sciatica, my goal is to give you a number of different self-management options. We’ll cover three different areas where you could improve and ease much of the sciatica that you do experience.
These areas are:
Step 1: Easing sciatica issues by getting out of positions that cause increased symptoms
This seems blatantly obvious to most people. The reality is that many people stay in pain producing positions for extended periods of time.
For instance, let’s take a traditional office-based job. Sciatica can be irritated with prolonged sitting, especially in a very flexed position. This puts the lower back into a flexed or rounded position. Because of this forward flexed position, the discs (think shock absorbers) of the lower back had additional stress placed on them throughout the day.
Take a look at the picture below. This shows the amount of pressure on the discs of the lower back in different positions. You can see that sitting in a forward flexed position increases the amount of pressure on the discs by 85% compared to standing. Even sitting in a good position increases the pressure by 40%.
What this shows us is your best option is to stand more, if possible. Even better, stand up and walk around more. Walking is like spraying WD-40 on the joints of the lower back and hips. Getting a standing desk is a good option for most people. They are becoming much more common in workplaces and even in schools. Stand Up Kids is a great reference for some of the other health benefits to getting a stand up desk.
If you are stuck sitting at a desk and you notice your back feels better when you stand, a lumbar roll may be a good option for you. These are firm rolls that are placed at the height of the lower back. They block the user into a more upright sitting position and deter much of the slouching that we see when people sit at a desk all day. You can also make yourself one of these pretty easily. Just get a gym towel, roll it up tight and duct tape around the roll. That’s it. It may not look as cool but it works.
Step 2: Easing sciatica issues by adding in self-mobility work to muscles in the lower back and hips
Let’s go over two areas you can start working on daily to help ease pain down the leg. For all of these areas our dosage is this: perform them twice a day, two minutes each technique per side. For all three techniques it should take you about 8-10 minutes with transitioning from one exercise to the next.
The first muscle is the quadratus lumborum. We’ll just call this muscle the QL because the actual muscle name sounds like a Harry Potter spell. The QL is a muscle that is one either side of the lower back and connects from the rib to the lower back to the pelvis. This muscle can refer pain down into the back of the hip region and is notorious for being irritated in people who sit all day or lack strength in their trunk.
The second muscle is actual a group of muscles. We call it the lateral hip complex but it includes fibers from the gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, gluteus medius and deep rotators like the piriformis. These muscles, in particular the piriformis get blamed for much of the sciatica people experience. We’ll catch a little bit of all of these muscles with this one technique.
Step 3: Working on improving control of the lower back and hips
This step is often the one that people skip over. This is especially true if someone gets pain relief with some of the mobility techniques or a passive treatment like dry needling or massage. Controlling your own body is massively important. I love the saying, “Strength is never a weakness,” and it’s true in this case. Here are two techniques to get some control back in the right areas.
The first thing we want to do is account for a huge area of dysfunction in almost every patient I see. That area is breathing! I know, you’re obviously breathing if you’re alive and reading this article. Just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean that you haven’t started doing it in a compensated way. We take an astounding 20,000 breaths per day. Many of us who have had issues with sciatica or lower back pain tend to breath in a dysfunctional pattern.
The main dysfunctional pattern I see in my patients is chest breathing. These are the individuals that just raise their rib cage and shoulders every time they breath. What they neglect to use is the diaphragm to initiate the breath movement. This can happen for a number of reasons but for the purpose of this article let’s just leave it as something we want to try to correct.
Below is a breathing exercise you can start using to correct this problem. Try and get 5-8 minutes of this breathing drill in per day. You can break it up into 1-2 minute bouts or get the whole 5-8 minutes in at once if you want.
The last exercise you can add in is to help develop some control in extension between your lower back and hips. This is an exercise called the banded bird dog and it requires a significant amount of stability/control. It also connects the hip with the shoulder on the opposite side. This is very important because we function so much in rotational patterns. Think about throwing a ball. If you’re throwing with your right arm then your plan leg is your left leg.
This diagonal control is very important for the lower back and controlling torque through the spine. Getting strong in this pattern is one of the best ways to create long term function and decrease the likelihood of sciatica issues.
Try and do 3 sets to form fatigue with as much rest in between sets as you need. Form fatigue is when you can’t perform a perfect repetition anymore.
If you’re like me you probably read the highlighted bullet points and then you’ll read this last paragraph (I call it efficient reading!). Let’s go ahead and summarize everything and make sure we’re clear on what to do.
First, get out of positions that cause sciatica. Move to a standing desk if possible and if not get up and move around as much as you can. Next, start working on mobility to areas that can be problematic for sciatica. This includes the QL and the lateral hip. Last, start getting some control back in your hips and lower back. Control and strength in these areas will be a huge benefit to you in any physical activity you chose to do.
Give this stuff a try for a week or two. If you feel like you’re not making progress or are ready to get some one on one help, we can help. We help people just like you get back to running, golf, tennis, CrossFit and cycling without sciatic pain. Check out our testimonials pain to see what others have to say about the work we do. Stop avoiding activities because of pain, get some help and get back out there.
- Dr. Danny, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS
Dr. Danny and staff's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.