by Thalia Wynne, PT, DPT, AT, RYT-200
Welcome to part two of the three-part How to Have a Happy Low Back series! If you haven’t had a chance to check out part one, I highly encourage you to start there or read it after you finish this article. Remember that what our low back truly desires is to have three things: stability, mobility, and adaptability.
Low back pain can be a major cause of distress. It is not uncommon for those who have experienced intense episodes of low back pain to develop, what we call in physical therapy, fear-avoidance to movement. Often someone will come to me expressing their fear to do simple tasks like picking up a pen from the floor or bringing in groceries from the car. Low back pain can be debilitating and is commonly linked with increased rates of depression and reduced quality of life. Utilize the three principles of stability, mobility, and adaptability combined with a proactive, healthy lifestyle and your back will no longer feel like a trouble area. Rather it will feel happy and free, allowing you the peace of mind to pursue any hobby, dream, or special activity to the fullest extent of your desires. Please understand that these are general principles and guidelines. To truly maximize your potential of applying them seek out a personalized training plan from your local physical therapist and other healthcare and fitness professionals.
Let’s dive into our second principle, mobility (stability is covered in Part 1 of this series). The definition of mobility is to move or be moved freely and easily. This means without difficulty and without pain. Movement comes from joints – the point where two bones make contact. Muscles contract and relax to move joints. Our nervous system, run by the brain, gives the command to our muscles to move or be still. The lumbar spine has on average, the following ranges of motion (in degrees). Notice that the lumbar spine primarily assists with spinal flexion and extension (sagittal plane or forward/backward movement) compared to the other motion types available to it.
Lateral Flexion (side bending)
Common barriers to full range of motion include joint restriction, muscle restriction, and motor coordination deficits. An example of each respectively include osteoarthritis, shortened muscle tissue from poor posture habits, and excessive movement from one segment – most commonly the L5-S1 segment vs uniform flexion-extension throughout the entire lumbar spine, L1-S1, due to learned poor motor behaviors and postural deficits.
Most often, extension is the first motion to be negatively affected. From the time we are born, we know the effects of gravity. Gravity pushes us into flexion, and over time we find ourselves slouching over computers, slumped on comfy couches, spending our days in flexed positions, thanks to gravity’s pull. Without training, over time we lose our ability to go into full lumbar extension. That loss of extension means that the balance of our gloriously complex musculoskeletal system is thrown off, leading to undue wear and tear. Imagine the gears of your bike were constantly rubbing in places they shouldn’t. Metal breaks down, gears get stuck, and seemingly overnight, the wheel doesn’t turn like it used to. But this wasn’t an overnight issue. It was years of breakdown because the gears were never addressed. This is what happens to the structures in your body. The seemingly sudden incident that throws out your back – waking up from sleep in sudden pain, sharp shooting agony after picking up a light bag from the floor – is really just the final straw to an issue that was building up for a very long time.
Issues like this can often be avoided with appropriate movement and posture education, training mobility, and most importantly adopting an overall healthy lifestyle. There is no easy fix to our orthopedic pains, unfortunately. As nonchalantly as medical providers offer us pills and creams to make our pain go away, these are only temporary relief aids to issues that only YOU have the power to heal. Our life choices affect our every cell. It’s true what they say – you are what you eat, and you are what you do. Isn’t it joyous to know that you have the power to change your own life? So, choose food, drink, movement, and stress reduction habits that will support your well-being and minimize your chances of developing avoidable chronic diseases, such as low back pain.
In summary, our lumbar spine moves in 3 planes of motion, but mostly it is responsible for flexion and extension. Over time, extension tends to be the primary motion of the lumbar spine that becomes limited due to gravity’s pull biasing flexion. To avoid losing extension, or any other motion of the lumbar spine, you can 1) educate yourself on appropriate posture and movement mechanics for your activities of daily living, 2) train mobility, and 3) support your movement practice with other healthy lifestyle choices. The LYT Daily platform is full of classes to support your lumbar spine mobility. Try one of these below and see for yourself! Your back will thank you.
Until next time, cheers to a happy low back!
Thalia Wynne, PT, DPT, AT, RYT-200