MRI and x-ray for low back pain are surprisingly unreliable,1 because things like bulging discs usually aren’t a deal,2 most back pain goes away on its own,3 and trigger points (“muscle knots”) are common and can be alarmingly intense but aren’t dangerous.4 Most patients are much better off when they feel confident about these things. The power of justified, rational confidence is a huge factor in back pain.5 Sadly, many healthcare professionals continue to perpetuate the idea of fragile backs,6 which undermines that valuable confidence.
But how can you tell? It can be tricky. This is a concise, readable guide to symptoms that need better-safe-than-sorry investigation with your doctor. (It’s basically just a plain English version of clinical guidelines for doctors.9) In other words, this article explains the difference between “dangerous” and “just painful” as clearly as possible. Tables, checklists, and examples ahead.
How to: Get in a standing position, with one foot about a foot's distance behind the other, hips in line. Your feet should be flat, and your legs should be straight. Cross the back foot behind the front one as you reach your arm on the same side overhead. Return to starting position. That's one rep. Do eight reps on each side. Do three to four sets before moving on to the next move, resting for 30 seconds in between each set.
Unilateral exercises like step-ups and single-leg toe touches are particularly effective at strengthening the glutes, while walking lunges, lateral lunges, air squats, and jump squats will zero in on all the muscles surrounding the hips. Whether you’re at the gym or heading out for (or back from!) a run, these five moves will strengthen and open your hips, keep them loose long-term, and not only make you a better runner, but make running feel better to you.
You may hear a clicking noise when you move your hip, but that sound is not necessarily a hip flexor issue. Siegrist says the clicking isn't generally the hip flexor alone and often comes from a moving part, like the joint. "Maybe there is a loose body in the joint or loose cartilage at the edge of the hip joint that is mechanically getting irritated,” she says.
Back “spasms” are a largely a myth — there’s no such thing a sustained painful contractions of muscles in otherwise healthy people (see Cramps, Spasms, Tremors & Twitches) — but the kernel of truth in the idea of “spasms” may be the idea of trigger points, which are hypothetical “micro cramps,” tiny patches of painfully contracting muscle. Although this idea is controversial, it is nevertheless one of the most likely explanations for common aches and pains that mostly stick to one area (especially the back) and have no other obvious cause. See Back Pain & Trigger Points. BACK TO TEXT
How to: Sit down with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor in front of you (a). Place your right ankle on top of your left thigh and flex your right foot (b). Put your hands behind your body, fingertips facing away from your body and begin to press your hips toward your heels until you feel a stretch through your outer left hip. Keep your back tall and chest open (c). Hold for six to eight breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Start on your hands and knees with your palms flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart. Your neck should be in line with your back, and your gaze should be down or slightly forward. Brace your core, and raise your left arm and right leg until they’re in line with your body. If that’s too challenging, only raise your leg. Either way, hold for five to 10 seconds, and then return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side (right arm and left leg) to complete one rep. Aim for five to seven reps total.
That is, the parts of your body that touch a saddle when riding a horse: groin, buttock, and inner thighs. I experienced rather intense, terrifying awareness of symptoms in this area in the aftermath of my wife’s car accident in early 2010. With a mangled T12 vertebrae, she was at real risk of exactly this problem. Fortunately, she escaped that quite serious problem. But, sheesh, I was vigilant about it for a while! “Honey, any numbness in your saddle area today?” BACK TO TEXT
Transitioning between these two poses will stretch your entire back, as well as your hips, core, chest, and neck. Start on your hands and knees with your shoulders directly above your hands and your hips directly above your knees. Spread your fingers and press your palms into the floor. As you breathe in, arch your back, lift your tailbone and head, and look toward the ceiling or sky. As you exhale, round your back and tuck your tailbone, tucking your chin against your chest as you shift your gaze to between your knees. Oscillate between these two poses for 10-15 breaths.
AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS Find an Orthopaedist program on this website.
2016 — More editing, more! Added some better information about pain being a poor indicator, and the role of myofascial trigger points. This article has become extremely busy in the last couple months — about 4,000 readers per day, as described here — so I am really polishing it and making sure that it’s the best possible answer to people’s fears about back pain.
You’ve heard the saying: it’s all in the hips, but for many of us, our hips – or more precisely, our hip flexors – are tight, stiff and inflexible. If you’re an office worker you can probably thank sitting down at your desk 8 or more hours a day for your tight hip flexors. Habitual sitting causes your hip flexors to tighten and shorten – adjustable standing desks, anyone?
How to do it: Put a 20- to 36-inch box behind you. With your feet hip-width apart, lift your leg and place the instep of your rear foot on the bench. Lower your hips toward the floor so your rear knee comes close to the floor, keeping your back straight. As you descend, make sure you don’t bend the torso excessively forward and your front knee does not pass your front toes. Pause when your rear knee is close to the floor and your front quad is parallel with the floor, then drive through your front heel to return to the start position. Repeat this movement, alternating sides each time.
• Psoriatic arthritis. Psoriatic arthritis is a form of arthritis accompanied by the skin disease psoriasis. The skin disease often precedes the arthritis; in a small percentage the joint disease develops before the skin disease. For about 20 percent of people with psoriatic arthritis, the disease involves the spine. In some cases, bony overgrowth can cause two or more vertebrae to grow together, or fuse, causing stiffness.
During pregnancy a woman’s abdominals get stretched out. There is no way to avoid this with a growing baby. Muscles work most effectively when they are at an optimal length. Not too short and not too long. The lengthening that happens during pregnancy puts the abdominal muscles at a decreased advantage for working. This decreases the amount of support they provide for spinal stability.
Grade III (severe): A complete tear in your muscle that causes severe pain and swelling and you can't bear weight on that leg, making it difficult to walk. You've also lost more than 50 percent of your muscle function. These injuries are less common and may need surgery to repair the torn muscle. They can take several months or more to completely heal.