If you’re laid up with an aching back, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time. Of course, there can be many causes — the back is a complicated structure of bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and joints, so back pain can be caused by everything from a pinched nerve to a bulging disc to a pulled muscle.
But here’s the rub. Low-back pain isn’t always due to an injury to the low back specifically. “The low back is a tricky thing,” says Greg Ux, a strength and conditioning specialist and former athletic trainer. “It’s often a place where pain or discomfort manifests itself rather than where it actually occurs. Specifically, pain in the low back may begin with issues in the hips, hamstrings, or thoracic spine. When these joints are tight, the next joint in the chain bears the brunt of the force production.” Ultimately, a chain reaction of muscle tightness takes place that leads to pain.
For instance, if you sit for too many hours each day, your hip flexors shorten, your pelvis tilts anteriorly, your hamstrings lengthen, your core muscles weaken, and your spine takes on an excessive inward curvature (lordosis). Slowly but surely, your back muscles tighten, your muscle fascia develops knots, and you’re left with dull or aching back pain.
Similar chain reactions occur when you regularly cross your legs, stand with poor posture, or fail to stretch consistently. But chasing chronic back pain by popping pills or skipping your favorite workouts won’t get to the root of the problem. It’s time to stop pretending you can just walk it off, and start managing the tightness that contributes to your aching back.