Why Does My Low Back Hurt When I Ride My Bike?
You'd think that something as healthy as riding your bike wouldn't turn on you and bite you in the backside. After all, on the saddle of a bike is one of the very best places to give your heart and lungs a good workout.
On a bike you can...
- Exercise for relatively long periods of time.
- Avoid the jarring shock-waves that travel up your body when running.
- Experience the exhilaration of screaming along under your own power.
Bikes Weren't Designed For Low Backs
It's been said that bicycles are the most efficient machine for harnessing human power into forward propulsion. But no one ever says that bikes are machines designed with the health of the human spine in mind.
Since the number one enemy of the bike rider is wind, most bikes are pedaled in a posture that allows the rider to stay as low as possible. What this means for the low back is a whole lot of forward bending... and not a lot else.
Short And Tight Is No Way To Go Through Life
Ever hear of a Fillet Mignon? Has anyone ever told you where your 'fillet mignon' is located? Well, it's tucked up on the front side of the lowest five vertebras, on the back side of your abdomen. It originates from L1 to L5 and connects itself onto the femur (large bone in the thigh) after traversing through the pelvis.
When we bend over and the chest is brought down toward the thigh, the psoas (so-azz) muscle is shortened. Conversely, when the psoas is contracted, the leg is drawn up toward the chest. And that's precisely the position cycling puts us into.
So when we spend hours hunched over on our bikes, asking our hip flexor group (of which the psoas muscle is a proud member) to contract while in an already shortened configuration, we're inviting trouble.
And trouble's just what our psoas muscle is prepared to deliver. To top it off, the obscure positioning of the psoas makes it difficult to always know that the psoas is unhappy. There's a bit of 'out of sight, out of mind' dynamic in play here.
How A Short, Tight Psoas Effects The Lumbar Spine
Because the psoas is attached to the front of the lumbar spine, its contraction pulls the low back forward, increasing the curve of the low back (sway back). The increased curve puts more downward force on the parts of the spine toward the rear of the body... namely those parts of the spine which are the most sensitive.
An increased lumbar curve compresses the discs more on the back than on the front. Compromising the discs in this way is a very poor idea, since such nightmares as ruptured discs, protruding discs, and a host of other bad behavior on the part of the intervertebral discs usually happen toward the backside.
The 'redheaded stepchildren' of the spine (who get no respect) are the facet joints. These are small, pain-sensitive joints, with each vertebra taking part in four facet joints. When you increase the downward force on these joints, you're asking for low back pain.
So besides the pain that you can expect from short contracted psoas muscles, the exaggeration of the lumbar curve is one generator of some of the most prevalent sources of low back pain.
Keep The Psoas Happy To Be Happy
If you're in the category of cyclists who are well down the road toward tight psoas muscles, you may have developed some trigger points. In that case, it may behoove you to visit a skilled massage therapist who can get to these muscles and work the trigger points out for you. It won't be a pleasant experience, but it will be unparalleled in benefit to your problem.
For the rest of the cyclists, and for those who have trigger points that have already been addressed, doing some effective psoas stretching on a regular basis will go a long way toward pain-free cycling.
By the magic of Youtube, there isn't too much unknown anymore. So instead of me awkwardly trying to describe some effective psoas stretches, I'll direct you to this video demonstration.
There is an exciting world out there waiting to be explored from the seat of a bike. It's hard to compare the combination of healthy exercise and exploration that cycling can provide. By taking care of the parts of the body that get strained by being flexed forward when peddling, many hours of pain-free pedaling await you.
About the author: Dr. Ron Fritzke writes about a variety of cycling subjects including different bike rack designs, as well as which cycling trainer to buy. His 'day job' for the last 25 years has been as a Chiropractor in Northern California. He serves on the sports medicine team at the College of the Siskiyous, in addition to maintaining his private practice.