What can you do if you're too tight to stand and move in neutral spine? A common lower back pain occurs after long standing, walking, and upright activity. The most common cause is exaggerated inward curve in the lower spine - a bad posture called hyperlordosis or overarching which pinches the joints called facets and the surrounding soft tissue. An obvious treatment is to simply stop the cause, and restore neutral spine.
Which specific stretches relieve the tight muscles that make neutral spine difficult?
Usually the tight muscles are in the front of the hip (anterior hip muscles) called hip flexors. Several specific easy stretches restore resting length to the front hip. Several of my patients and readers find that posterior hip stretches also help quickly. Liz first wrote in with her success story, How a Reader Stopped Recurring Pain, Got Stronger, and Said Aha!
Liz continues her story:
"Dear Dr Bookspan,
"Just a few days ago I checked back to read your blog…since I posted my "Short history" which turned out to not be so short. I was particularly trying to share one thing that had happened to me, for which I couldn't find any specific help until I read your blog, which was back pain after bike riding.
"Even short walks hurt my back before I discovered your work, let alone the way my back felt after a bike ride, a future of pain, getting fat and depressed from lack of activity.
(trouble persists with getting photos to load - Liz' photo should be here and hopefully will soon)
"I thought I'd send at least one photo of me on my bike (I think I have mastered the dorky cyclist look) after a 12 km ride home from work and 12 kms to work that morning. If it hadn't been for you I would not have been able to do this, I would have not experienced the joy it gives me to use my muscles, feel my body doing what it was meant to do.
"I like being able to look after myself and not rely on an external source, like a chiropractor, to keep me well. Whenever I take out your book (Fix Your Own Pain) to refer to, my husband says, 'oh oh, what's wrong?' Mostly now it's just to refresh my memory of an exercise or principle you have written or to check I'm not doing something terrible to my knees. What a marvelous reference book it is.
"After I hurt my back during my first trial cycling to work, I read so many books and articles and web pages on back pain, and many on cycling and back pain. Mostly they were about pain caused by the racing position or impact injuries from bumps in the road. Then I read one of your blog entries where a readers/patient explained he had to give up cycling because of the pain he experienced in his lower back a while after he had been on a ride.
"This is what happened to me, in that blog you explained that a few specific stretches were useful for specific muscles. I checked many pictures of anatomy, which named the muscles that I seemed to be having trouble with, I went back to your book and read more about hips and how tight muscles in the hip area can cause lower back pain. It seems, sitting at a computer all day, then using my leg and hip muscles to propel myself up really steep hills was causing the muscles in my hips to tighten a great deal. That's why I tried your figure 4 stretch.
"It did precisely what I needed it to do, now if I don't do it regularly, I can feel my pelvis is tilting the wrong way, all by itself and my lower back starts to hurt. And when I lie on my back my front hip/pelvic bones (iliac crest) stick way out because of the extreme tilt. Then I do the lying figure 4 stretch and they go back into the right place. Now I know exactly what to do to end the pain and I wanted to make sure, should anyone be searching for help, that they will know there is an answer and your work is the source.
"Thank you for helping me find my joy."
Neutral spine is pictured at left. Too much inward curve (hyperlordosis) is pictured in the middle and right drawings. Abs are too long, lower spine is pinched in back.
Habitually keeping too much inward curve (hyperlordosis) shortens and tightens lower back muscles. Tight lower back muscles pull the back of the pelvis upward, tilting it outward in back and forward in front. The tight area feels normal when held shortened (hyperlordotic) and resists lengthening enough to stand in neutral spine. Stretching the lower back allows neutral spine to become possible and feel normal.
I wrote back to Liz asking if she was using anterior hip (hip flexor) stretches too and if she felt the posterior hip stretches working to let her restore straight hip instead of tilting forward.
"Yes, being a mostly sitting worker I do the hip flexor (anterior front hip) stretch too, I'm sure it helps my ability to voluntarily keep my hips tilted correctly all the time, I can feel with my hands when they 'flatten'. I do this stretch everyday, sometimes twice a day and it's very helpful. I have on occasion skipped this stretch and only done the posterior hip stretch and I've found I have had no trouble achieving neutral spine. But I do it anyway, it's got to be good for me!
"This is my description of the reason I do the posterior hip stretch, mostly on my bike ride days (though it's so good for me, now I do it twice a day) - Even though I am tilting my hips voluntarily to the best of my ability, if I have not done the posterior hip stretch I feel a sharp pinching in my lower back, where the 'dimples' are, sometimes only one side sometimes both. I feel my front hip bones with my hands and can tell my pelvis is not correctly angled, I can't tilt it correctly any further without starting to use muscle force. Not the gentle neutral spine you describe.
"When I lie down and try to gently straighten my spine to neutral, I find I can't and my front hip bones stick out quite a bit. It feels like a muscle somewhere is holding on to my pelvic bone so firmly I can't move it without force. So then I do the posterior hip stretch on both sides for 30 seconds or more if it's feeling wonderful. Often I feel one side is far tighter than the other. Then I test again by lying straight, feeling my front hip bones with my hands and gently moving into neutral spine and I find they are nice and flat, and stay that way. Also the pinching pain goes quite rapidly. Occasionally the pain doesn't go away for a few hours, a hot bath helps. If this happens I do the posterior hip stretch a few times over an hour or two and that also helps. I expect this means I may have done a wee bit of damage to the soft tissue, amazing how the body heals.
"I have discovered that even on non-biking days, if I do this stretch regularly, I rarely feel any pain in my back at all. I'm not 100% certain if it's the combination of stretches that I do, including the hip flexor stretch, but I feel this one is critical for the correction of some kind of internal postural muscle, that is not behaving in a natural way, through some unconscious action of mine."
Usually, no special exercises are needed to have neutral spine. Worse, a common scenario is someone doing exercises then walking away with the spine still arched, never applying the exercise to real life. They become stronger people with the same bad posture - the exercise was not used for function. Instead, just stop the bad position and deliberately move your spine to neutral. However, when the area is too tight to move to neutral, here are stretches. The stretches don't change your voluntary posture, you do that. They just can make it possible:
First, Don't Tighten:
- First make sure you don't tighten or clench abdominal or posterior hip and leg muscles. Tightening does not change posture, inhibits movement, and makes it hard to move to neutral spine.
Then, check if you just need a guide to help feel how to reduce the lower spine arch without pushing the hip forward, leaning back, or moving everything else:
If you find you are still too tight, stretch the front of the hip (anterior) and back (posterior):
Anterior Hip Stretches:
- Until I make a post for this one, a relaxing start to stretch the front of the hip is to lie face up with knees bent and ankles crossed. Let knees separate to each side as far as comfortable. Keep lower legs next to each other, not one on top of the other. Do this without shoes, to fit your feet side by side without resting the lower leg on the foot. Experiment with pressing your lower back toward the floor. This stretches front and back at the same time, as needed for straighter standing. If this stretch is too much at first, start lying on your back with only one knee bent to the side, the other leg straight. Rest bottom of the foot of the bent leg at the knee of the straight leg.
- Use a comfortable lunge for bending for things around the house - Hip Stretch While You Strengthen Legs
- A short movie on how to position the Lunge Exercise to Neutral Spine
- A nice stretch over a bed or bench - Quick Relaxing Hip Stretch. If this one is too much, try it lying flat with a pillow under your hips. Gradually use a bigger pillow. Finally, lie with legs stretching down from the edge of the bed and no pillow.
- A big stretch - Relaxing Hip, Leg, and Groin Stretch. If the Relaxing Hip, Leg, and Groin Stretch is too much to start with, do it face up instead of face down (see the first stretch above).
- Push your knee away, instead of pulling it toward you during this posterior hip stretch to get an anterior hip stretch - Better Posterior Hip, Iliotibial, and Piriform Stretch
Lower Back, Posterior and Side Hip:
- Reader Steve demonstrates a different way to do the lying figure 4 hip stretch - Fast Fitness - Better Posterior Hip, Iliotibial, and Piriform Stretch
- Reader Mike demonstrates the seated figure 4 in A Whole Big Fix
- Fast Fitness - Great Hip, Side, Leg, and I.T. Stretch
- Increase your hip stretch (carefully) with Fast Fitness - Balance, Strength, Stretch, and Socks
Reader Success Stories fixing chronic lower back pain from overarching and tight hip:
- Ted's story - Back Pain From Running
- Nick's story - Prevent Main Factor in Back Pain After Running and Walking
- Mike's story with his photo of seated hip stretch - A Whole Big Fix
- Requested by reader Jean Christophe - Lower Back Pain and Golf
Liz's debut story - How a Reader Stopped Recurring Pain, Got Stronger, and Said Aha!
Books - all information in one place, illustrated, step-by-step - www.DrBookspan.com/books