When I started practicing nearly 20 years ago, patients rarely came in with pain complaints AND attempted solutions for mitigating said pain. Nowadays, with the ever-present “Dr. Google”, patients rarely come in with pain and questions as to the source of their pain. Most patients will tell me about their low back pain, what it is and what they’ve done to try to mitigate the pain. In some cases, Dr. Google has rendered an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, Dr. Google is way off the mark in his/her recommendations and is actually exacerbating the patient’s problems. One of the many mistakes being made by Dr. Google and online “experts” is the use of the foam roller for lower back pain and tightness.
Most days I’m at the gym training I see individuals using the foam roller for various body parts. Like most situations at gyms, some uses are correct and some uses are so wrong I often have to intervene to teach individuals the harm they are doing to their bodies. Foam rolling is actually a decent recovery tool when used properly but foam rolling the lower back is an absolute BACK BREAKER! The act of foam rolling the lower back as a warm-up for weight training or even worse, as a form of mid-session back stretching is, in my eyes, always contraindicated. As I’ve stated over and over again in multiple blog posts, video posts and in my book PROTECT YOUR BACK 101, the lower back/lumbar spine desires stability! The stability of the lumbar spine is paramount to healthy lumbar discs and joints. By stretching the lumbar spine on a foam roller for back pain or before, during or after exercise/weight training you are creating mobility in an area that desires stability! So, how does the foam roller create instability in the lumbar spine? The answer is a little technical, but if you watch my video on the neurology of lumbar muscle tightness at the end of this blog post, it’ll help you to understand the mechanism. Please remember this, the discs and joints of the lumbar spine communicate with the brain about their position and the brain responds accordingly based on its perception of the threat level to these structures. Here’s a perfect example: when an individual is doing a squat at the gym and he/she is squatting too deep, their lumbar spine loses its lordosis. As a result, the disc’s fluid will migrate toward the spinal cord creating a potential for bulging and herniation. Regardless if the disc bulges or not, the simple loss of lordosis creates enough strain to the lumbar disc ligaments, interspinous ligaments and other holding elements of the spine so the brain perceives a threat to the spinal cord. As a result, the brain will reflexively tell the muscles to tighten up to protect the lumbar spine. This is a purely protective and reflexive muscular contraction that ISN’T muscle tightness that needs to be stretched! The result of this neurologically reflexive muscle contraction is a large paraspinal (big muscles along the spine) contraction in the lumbar area giving the individual a perception of lower back tightness. So, what does that individual do? Well, if he/she hasn’t read any of my material or watched any of my videos they hop on a foam roller to “loosen up” the lumbar paraspinal muscles. The foam rolling will work for a short period of time, but the relief will be short-lived. Remember, the cause of the perceived muscle tightness isn’t muscle! The cause of the muscle tightness is a neurological reflexive contraction of the muscle due to the spine being out of position and the brain’s perception of the spine being under threat. So how then do we mitigate said muscle tightness? Well, first of all don’t ever lose your lordosis while exercising! Especially with load demanding movements like a squat or a dead-lift. Be careful with your set up, your start position and your depth. Always maintain that lordosis and if you happen to lose the lordosis on a couple of reps resulting in lower back tightness that is reflexive, simply drop to the ground and do some press ups or do a few reps of a lordosis restoring movement such as the bear. By re-establishing your lordosis and moving the discs back into their centralized position the brain will not perceive any more threat to the system. As such, the reflexive tightness in the lower back paraspinal muscles will abate and you’ll feel relatively normal pretty quickly.
So, remember, if your lower back is tight due to injury or if you are performing a movement at the gym, if you are out of lordosis a cascade of negative events will occur placing stress on the discs and other elements of the lower back. The result of the lack of lordosis can lead to a perceived muscular tightness that is reflexive in nature. So if you are fatigued or you have performed an exercise or any other movement that has taken you out of lordosis and you feel muscular tightness, simply re-establish your lordosis with any of my corrective exercises, such as press ups or bear, and you’ll not only feel fast relief you’ll ultimately PROTECT YOUR BACK!