Sunday, May 07, 2006

DF Tip #15: Cheap Fix for Back Pain

wcoatSome of my best friends are doctors.

Saying "some of my best friends are…" is the kiss of death, of course, and I admit that what follows does indeed contain a little dig at our white-coated friends. Nonetheless, it's true: some of my best friends are doctors, I love every one of them, and would place my health in their hands in a heartbeat.

Having said that, aren't doctors the worst??

Item: I've had the following interaction with fitness clients a good dozen times or so over the years. A client will come to me and complain of back pain. The pain is worst, they explain, when they lie on their stomachs, and virtually disappears when they lie on their sides and draw the knees towards the chest.

drawEach time I've heard this complaint I take the client through a magic little one-minute move called the kneeling hip flexor stretch, which I'll explain in a moment here. Guess what? Immediate relief. All twelve times. And that's after just a few moments with a gym drone like me -- a guy who, compared to your average MD, may as well have ordered his personal training cert from the back of the same matchbook cover with the picture of the cartoon duck saying "Draw Me!" And these were clients who, in a couple of cases, were contemplating surgery.

Now I'm not saying "Doctors are dumb and I'm smart" (though if you want to go ahead and conclude that on your own, be my guest). Far from it. I just find it wall-climbingly irksome that somewhere in the 15-year curriculum for doctors there isn't a five-minute primer on Easing Low Back Pain through Hip Flexor Extensibility. After all, guess what ailment is quite literally the #1 health complaint in the civilized world?

That's right -- back pain.

Yet not one of the people who came to see me had been told by their doctors, "Hey, try stretching your hip flexors." Long before that option came up, they'd been prescribed pain pills and given full-color brochures on the surgical options available to them for the low, low monthly payment of $199.50 for a short 48 months!

So you can see why I'm a little put out by the medical profession. BUT -- instead of impotently venting my frustration, let me do something about it and spread a dollop of wisdom.

Your hip flexors are the muscles that attach the front of your thighs to your pelvis. They're a series of tough, stringy muscles responsible for swinging your legs forward and up. If you stand, balance on your right foot, draw your left knee up towards your chest, and dig your fingers into the crease formed between your left thigh and hipbone, you'll feel your left hip flexor muscles doing their thing.

On any given day, whether you're active or not, your hip flexors take a pretty good pounding. If you walk, run, or do virtually anything athletic, your hip flexors are working pretty hard to pull your legs forward every time you take a step. If, on the other hand, you're sitting down all day, the hip flexors remain shortened the entire time you're sitting there driving or typing or watching TV. And chances are that unless you already know the kneeling hip flexor stretch (in which case, why even read this far, hotshot), you're not getting much flexibility work in this area either.

Combine the overstimulation from athletic endeavors, the shortened resting position, and the lack of flexibility in the area and you get a recipe for short, tight hip flexors, and -- you guessed it -- back pain.

You see, the hip flexors, naturally, connect to the hips. When they get tight, they pull the front edge of your pelvis down and forward when you stand, resulting in a rodeo-rider like, butt-sticking-out posture. With the pelvis tipped forward like this, it becomes impossible to stand straight without straining the lower back -- which, over time, can lead to chronic LBP. This is another example of the Tall Ship image from a few weeks ago: do anything often enough and the body starts to conform to that shape -- healthy or not. So if you sit a lot, which all of us do, you get short hip flexors and, sooner or later, a greater or lesser degree of LBP.

So instead of spending all your time stretching the low back (most peoples' immediate impulse when the back gives them trouble), give the Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch a try:

hp1) Kneel down with your right foot behind you.
2) Step your left foot out in front of you.
3) Place your hands on your left knee.
4) Lunge forward onto your left foot so that your hips sink towards the floor.
5) Continue lunging forward until you feel a comfortable stretch in the front of your right hip. Press the top of your right foot into the floor. Hold for 10-20 seconds.
6) Stretch the right hand above your head and hold for another 20 seconds.
7) Repeat stretch with your left foot back.

This is the most effective hip flexor stretch I know -- it's easy, quick, and a heck of a lot cheaper than surgery and six months of physical therapy. I'm not saying it'll cure every case of low back pain, but it's definitely worth a try before you go under the knife.

Good luck, and have a great week--


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If, like me, you can't stand the pain of chiropractic treatment, or the akwardness of bending into funny positions, and you are looking for an effective long term remedy for your back problems then may i suggest a new mattress (or to be more specific – an orthapedic or memory foam mattress).
There are a whole range of specialist mattresses aimed at correcting posture and in turn alleviating back and neck pains. The benefits are long-term and you don't need to regularly visit [and pay!] some heavy handed therapist to relieve the pain! i recently purchased an orthopedic memory foam mattress, and i can report, that after a fortnight sleeping on it, i wake up feeling much better than i did when i slept on my old mattress. One may jump to the conclusion that such specialist mattress prices are high; however, if you look hard enough, you can find cheap orthopedic mattresses out there. If you are dispirited by the expense, just think of the long term benefits for your health, and the lack of future visits to your heavy handed therapist!!