If you’ve ever found yourself suffering from some form of back pain, you are certainly not alone. In industrialized countries, there is a 60-70% incidence rate of non-specific low back pain according to the World Health Organization. For many, they may feel that their back pain resolves itself for a short while, only to return again. For others, masking the pain with medications seems like the only option. But did you know that movement might just be your answer?
What Causes Low Back Pain?
In acute cases, meaning there is a new injury, the body will try to protect itself by starting an inflammatory process. Let’s use the ankle joint as an example. If you sprain your ankle out on a run, you’ll notice that it gets hot and swells up. This inflammation limits the movement you have in your ankle for a short period of time as a natural protection mechanism. As healing begins, the swelling goes down allowing you to gain motion back and walk without limping. But when the pain goes on for months or maybe even years, like back pain often does, the issue is categorized as chronic and the healing process is a little different.
In order to protect itself when the body senses this chronic pain, the muscles may stiffen as a reaction. By getting your body to stay in a position of comfort, your muscles trick your brain into thinking that the pain is resolved. The stiffening decreases the mobility of your spinal column, the amount of blood flow, and the quantity of nutrients those muscles get. So while your brain may have thought it was helping, by limiting the painful movements, reduced movement in these chronic cases often does the opposite, perpetuating the cycle of pain when our bodies are craving movement!
The Spine is The Key
By resolving the lack of mobility in the spine, we can theoretically end the cycle of chronic pain at any point. This is why Joseph Pilates said, “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” However, this is not to say that the only contributing factor to your back pain is a stiffening of muscles. While stiffening is just one of the pieces to the puzzle, as a physical therapist I believe it is the best place to start.
While it may sound simple, mobility of the spine is key for all of our daily movements. Let’s walk through an average morning: You wake up, rolling over in bed to turn off your alarm. You stand and head to the bathroom. After brushing your teeth, fixing your hair, and washing your face, you walk over to the closet. After bending to open some drawers and reaching up to take down some hangers, you get dressed. You haven’t even gone to the kitchen or pulled out of the driveway and you’ve already engaged your spine in a million movements.
How Does Mobility Affect Low Back Pain?
Spinal flexion, extension, rotation, and side bending. Let’s stop here before I get carried away. Next time you wake up in the morning, try to be conscious of your movement. Did you bend over the sink to spit? Did you rotate to put your seatbelt on?
The spine is involved in nearly every task, and if you are in chronic pain, everyday tasks can quickly become unbearable. The body will stop moving as freely, limiting your range of motion in order to prevent pain. These limitations can make your joints hypomobile over time. If you feel stiffer than you were in the past, I would bet it stems from this lack of mobility that has accumulated in your spine that has accumulated over time as you prevent movement in a variety of planes. Like I said, this is a vicious cycle for a reason.
As I mentioned, there are numerous factors that contribute to low back pain and mobility work is no magic pill but getting evaluated by a physical therapist is a great first step. He or she can help you determine how much of your chronic back pain is due to a lack of mobility and get you started on your healing journey.
So let’s get moving together! Here at Pilates in the Grove, we believe in stable mobility. Everybody should be able to safely move in all planes of motion without pain. Give your body the movement it wants and craves. If you are in pain or feel out of sorts, come in for an evaluation at either of our locations. After all, movement is medicine!
Dr. Adrianna Ortega, DPT