No, that wasn’t a euphemism, and there is a small story attached to this post’s title, but first I’ll tell you a little of what I’ve learned about a very important group of muscles. For those of you who aren’t really interested in anatomy, you may wish to skip a couple of paragraphs.
The Psoas muscles are the most important in a group of muscles known as the Hip Flexors, and they are essentially responsible for raising the femur – you know, that big bone in the middle of your thigh. So, when you’re standing and you want to bend forward, raise the knee, perform a sit-up, or even if you simply wish to move your leg forward while walking, the Psoas muscles need to be able to do their thing.
Another important aspect of Psoai (yes, that’s the plural) function is their involvement in terms of hip rotation and mobility, because even when you have an injury these muscles need to be able to help manage the movement of your hip so that your body can maintain relative stability. Without the really subtle movements of the hip when moving, your back would not remain stable, and walking or even just sitting could be quite a difficult and possibly painful experience.
So these are some seriously important muscles, and apparently I’ve had them my whole life and never really known how important they are to me. And yet, without realising it I’ve been aware of my Psoas for nearly 20 years, although in a classic case of mistaken identity I’ve thought for all of that time that they were something else.
I’ve been dealing with chronic back pain for a long time now, and in particular I have had huge problems in my lumbar (lower) spine. I’ve had days when I couldn’t even move myself to roll over in bed because something was cramping and spasming in my back, and after a few days of lower back pain, I’d end up with lots of additional referred pains in the leg (sciatica), and in the thoracic (upper) spine.
My back condition has literally been a nightmare in terms of pain management and treatment. I’ve seen doctors, chiropractors, and physiotherapists, and never had any pain relief without strong medication. MRI has never shown anything to be wrong, and X-ray has only once shown one of my lower vertebrae to be slightly out of alignment. The only time I’ve ever had natural pain relief was when I learned a little about the Feldenkrais Technique. Unfortunately the classes were very expensive to attend more than a few times, and while I felt relief from pain, the injury was always there and I had no idea either what was causing the injury to occur, or how to train myself so that I could avoid re-injury in the future.
OK, so for all of these experts with their combined years of knowledge and experience, and the years of medical expenses and medication, it kind of sucks that the problem never went away. Even worse was that back pain had become a serious barrier in my attempts to improve my physical health over the years, and so my fitness and weight have predictably yo-yo’d almost continuously for the last 10 years. The trouble was, that the pain was in my back, and everybody was looking for the real cause of the problem in the wrong place… sort of.
Just yesterday, I decided to install and mess around with an extension for Google Chrome called BioDigital Human. This is an app that allows you to look at all of the major functional parts of the body in 3D. Now because my back has been particularly sore over the last few days (which I’d attributed to a slightly aggressive workout combined with my recent conversion to a standing desk), I decided to look at all of the muscles in the back to see if the problem might be muscular, so that I could find an appropriate method to both stretch and support any muscles that I thought were likely to be linked to my back pain.
After digging around in the app for a while, I was surprised to discover that not only did I have Psoas muscles, but that they were required primarily hip flexion, and having lived with my problem for many years, I knew that certain hip related movements were always the ones which caused me the greatest trouble whenever my back was sore. I also learned more importantly perhaps that of the four Psoas muscles, the two Major Psoai are attached at the facet joints of all of the lumbar vertebrae, yet deep below the outermost muscle tendons of the lats which were always the bits that seemed to get massaged whenever I visited the experts.
So what was my great epiphany? It occurred to me that I had never felt any knots or tension in my lats, so if the Psoai were in spasm and they were creating a lot of tension on my spine, wouldn’t it make sense that this would result in pinched nerves and a great deal of local pain? Well, it seems that I was on to something. After a little digging, I learned how to do a Psoas stretch, which has offered a little alleviation but did not seem to help with the majority of the pain.
Earlier today I had a breakthrough. I thought about how the Psoai helped with hip flexion, and how my hip was feeling stiff, so what if I tried to slowly rotate the hip in small circles at first, and then increasingly wider circles over a short period of time. I had nothing to lose, so I spent the better part of the next 2 minutes “hula hooping” my hips. Amazingly, the pain disappeared immediately!!!
Well, I felt very clever and did a bit of a Google search for “Hula” and “Psoas”, and found a few sites which mentioned this technique as a way to relieve pain and increase mobility. If only I had known to do that search back when the pain started, I could have saved myself years of hurt, not to mention the cash!!
So if you have lower back pain, chances are that you have a problem with your Psoas muscles, which may be too tight and probably need to be worked on. If you find yourself getting lower back pain no matter how careful you are while doing sit-ups, and if you have pain when you bend forward, try the following technique:
- Assume a hula stance with your feet about hip width apart, and your knees relaxed and slightly bent.
- Breathe in deeply, and then breathe all the way out – further than you would normally exhale – which will trigger a relaxation of your back.
- Start to rotate your hips in a circle, leading back with the tail bone, and imagining the aim is to use your tail bone to ‘draw’ a circle around your feet.
- Start the circles small (around your inner ankles), and gradually widen the circles as the exercise progresses.
- Keep your head up, and your shoulders and chest should remain still.
- Perform the exercise in one direction for 30 seconds, then repeat in the opposite direction for another 30 seconds.
- Breathe normally throughout the exercise.
You may start to feel some soreness in the hip, and at the top of your thigh, which will be your hip flexors paying for their former laziness and leaving all of the pain management to your Psoai. If so, use smaller circles until you get used to the movement. I’d also suggest a Psoas stretch on both legs after you’ve busted your hula moves, and then going for a short and gentle walk. If any movement causes you more pain, stop immediately, and certainly consult with your physician if you have any concerns before attempting to do something you feel unfamiliar with.
If your back pain disappears, even for only a few moments, you’ve probably found the cause of your lower back pain and you can repeat this exercise whenever your back starts to feel a little sore. I now do it regularly at my standing desk, much to the amusement of my lovely – and clearly sympathetic – spouse.
Please leave a comment if you find that this helps you in any way, or if you have any extra tips you think might be useful when it comes to releasing your pesky Psoai.