Many people think that having back pain is a sign or a weak or “bad” back. The truth is, although vertebrae and tendons can become weak, the bigger part of the story is often held in the balance of muscles that hold the vertebrae in place and keep our bodies in motion. To ensure a healthy back, the muscles that attach at the hip and back, must hold both strength and flexibility to ensure proper use and posture. One such muscle that is often indicated where there is back pain is Iliopsoas.
The psoas (pronounces So-as) is a deep internal muscle on the front of the body that connects your spine to your leg. It originates at the 12th thoracic vertebrae and all of the lumbar vertebrae, comes down through the hip joints and attaches at the top of the femur. It’s about 16 inches long.
When shortened and / or full of trigger points, the psoas can cause a lot of problems, including lower to middle back pain, digestive problems, menstrual problems, and leg and knee pain.
Because we are bi-pedal (standing on 2 legs) beings who are most often in forward motion, the psoas has a large job. It’s primary movement is flexing the hip and spinal column, which we do in most of our every day lives. Walking, sitting, standing, bending over, squatting, reaching forward, biking, running, and climbing all use the same contracting motion of the psoas muscle.
The motions that we do the least, bend backward, open our bellies while in a lunge, are the motions that would open the psoas.
Therefore this muscle doesn’t get any counteraction to its action, which basically means that it rarely gets to rest.
How would you know if your psoas is the culprit of your back pain?
Well for starters, the psoas is involved in some way in most lower back, hip, and upper thigh tension and pain.
More specifically, referring pain from the psoas shows up in the Quadratus lumborum (QL) which is a deep back muscle that connects the upper sacrum to the ribs and runs along the spine. It’s thick and you use it to twist, bend sideways, lift, and cough.
Any tension and tenderness in the place where the thigh muscles meet the hip bones would indicate psoas tension.
If you “have a bad back,” “a weak back,” or experience bulging discs, then your psoas is probably too tight for your overall good.
If you work at a desk, then I imagine your psoas is tight and/or weak.
In the front of your body, abdominal tension and pain can indicate psoas tension. the psoas starts about 3 inches lateral to your belly button and just above, and runs down to the inner hip (and through to the leg). Woah. That is a lot of territory! All of the organs that it is under, over or near can be affected.
Your colon, uterus and ovaries, small intestine, liver and spleen are all in close proximity and tight fascial bands around the psoas can create havoc in all of these areas.
DO A TEST. If you have never felt your psoas, you can feel it one of two ways.
First, stand up and root your feet into the ground. Put your hand on the back of your hips / sacrum for support, and start to lean back from your head first, relaxing the front of the spine and relaxing into a short back-bend. (You should never force this.) As your head and spine start to bend, feel into the front of the area in your lower abdomen to the side of your belly button and above your hips. Does it feel tight?
If back bends aren’t your thing, then stand and drop one leg back behind you into a lunge. Make sure your knee does not move forward over your ankle. Once in the lunge, sink into your hips and let your legs stretch from the inside. Lean back into space and open your abdomen. Does it feel loose, flexible? Does it feel tight?
STRENGTHENING AND OPENING YOUR PSOAS FOR HEALTHY BACKS
Ok, now that we have identified our psoas and it’s possible association with our back pain, what can we do about it?
1) Do yoga, pilates, or any kind of back and belly opening exercise classes at the gym. Committing to 1 time a week is enough to help your body obtain the balance it needs to be healthy. In addition, that one time a week class reverberates by keeping your mind focused on proper posture and which muscles are speaking to you.
2) IF you sit for a living, commit to taking daily walks. 30 minutes a day really does help your body loosen up and move all of the muscle, lymph, and fascia to get blood into deeper areas.
3) Get a large exercise ball and lay backwards on it. This opens the back and stretches the psoas, hip, and abdominal muscles. Take deep breaths while you do this. WANT MORE? Do sit ups on the ball, while contracting your thigh muscles. This will strengthen your back and psoas.
4) Get on the floor. Children are often playing around on the floor and grass. WE stop doing this as adults and our bodies suffer for it. STop, drop, and roll isn’t just for emergencies, it helps keep our bodies limber.
5) Get a professional massage. Many massage therapists will work on your psoas muscles if you have back pain – ask yours if they do. In addition, Chi Nei Tsang (chinese abdominal massage) helps to release the fascia around all of the organs in the abdomen for better health and movement.
6) See a chiropractor who does manual therapy or manipulation. Many chiropractors will work on muscles in addition to bones and joints, again ask before you schedule if they do.
7) Work on acknowledging and releasing fear in your life. The psoas is associated with the emotion of fear, so when we have old deep fears in our bodies- we can experience psoas tension and back pain. Being conscious about bring those fears to the surface and releasing old traumas will help the psoas relax and the back open up. Somatic therapy and Ensoflow Shiatsu are helpful with the mind body connection and moving through old patterns.
8) LAST, stay HYDRATED! Dehydration will affect all of your muscle, organ, lymph, and fascial patterns and can lead to chronic tension. Remember that hydration is achieved through both water and minerals (our bodies our 75% “salt” water). Pure water, coconut water, electrolytes, and magnesium supplementation all help our bodies to stay hydration.