Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Oh, My Aching Back!

Muriel asked an excellent question on my last post and I realized I should probably elaborate a bit more on my injury. The question was:

"I do not understand how you use your abs for supporting your back???
Because from my Pilates exercises, such the bridge, I rounded my back and lifted it up by contracting my abs, starting by the lower abs.
I have in fact super strong rectus abominis, tensing glutei and rectus abominis put me in a chair seat.

So how does your abs support your back? Tranverse and obliques help with rotating and bending. So?
Should we not reinforce our latissimus dorsi to keep us erect?"

She brings up very good points. A strong back requires strong back muscles, so where do abdominal muscles come into the picture? To answer her question, I'll have to go into more detail.

The term "back" is fairly general. My back injury occurred after a fall from a horse. The horse bolted, I knew there was no saving the situation and so I made the decision to ditch. I was always taught that when you knew you were in real trouble and there was no way to get the horse back under control, the wisest thing to do was to fall off. That way, you could choose when, where and how you were coming off and save yourself a traumatic accident. I have followed this wisdom for years, it's gotten me out of many sticky situations in one piece. This time, it didn't. I slammed into the dirt full force, right onto my left hip.

Eight x-rays, an MRI and two orthopedists later, I was told that the way I fell caused my left pelvic bone to slam into my lumbar spine, breaking both and causing all sorts of nasty damage to the nerves and ligaments of my lower back. Particularly damaged were my L-5 vertebra, lumbosacral joint and sciatic nerve. These areas are pretty much the very lowest point that can still be considered "the back". Any lower and I would have had a broken butt.

One look at the anatomy of this area, usually referred to as the "lower back" in spite of it's more butt oriented location, will show you that there really isn't a whole lot going on in the way of back muscles there. We have large, strong muscles in our upper back to facilitate lifting and standing erect, but the lower back area only has a few relatively wimpy muscles. It's certainly not enough to keep a dodgy lumbar spine in line, as anyone with chronic back pain can tell you. So, in order to get the support we need for our spines, we need to engage all the muscles of the area: The back and the abs. This is often referred to as "the core".

Taken together, the core muscles will create a sort of girdle, supporting the lower spine on all sides and keeping it nicely in line. Strengthening only the back muscles will still allow the spine to shift forward, resulting in a hollow back. Too strong of abdominals have the opposite effect, rounding the lower back. Both sets of muscles need to work together to keep the spine well supported.

For me, I don't worry too much about strengthening the muscles of the back. Farm and family life do that for me. Mucking stalls, hauling buckets, lifting a toddler, stacking hay and feed and gardening keep the muscles of my back nice and strong. But if I don't concentrate on working my abs, they tend to get flabby, then my back will get hollow and cause me pain. Having had one child and being pregnant with another doesn't help either, pregnancy stretches the abdominal muscles out and puts strain on the lower back. So, because of my injury and my tendency to hollow my back as opposed to rounding it, I concentrate on using my abdominals to support my back. That's not to say that I only use my abdominals, just that I mainly concentrate on them because that's where I tend to get out of whack.

It's a real pain in the butt. *G*


  1. Is it a pain in the butt or a pain in the back? ;-)

    I need to get back to working my abs more regularly. I'll just tell myself, "Shannon can do with while pregnant with a toddler running around. Surely I can cope with two rambunctious puppies."

  2. Excellent post. Physical therapy exercises for the lower back involve a lot of abdominal work. And, when I start riding again after a layoff, the first place I feel sore is in my abs, often the upper ones.

    I am amazed that you can continue to ride with those old injuries while being pregnant. You are one determined riding addict. *S*

  3. Thanks very much very interesting post!!!

    I am getting out my anatomy books *G*

    You are right, lower back there are not much down there:
    -aponeuris spinal muscles
    - intertransversarii laterales lumborum
    -quadratus lumborum.

    I think I get it. You mean that for stabilizing our spine, we need to use our pelvis floor muscles. Am I right?

    It is interesting. I have been playing with trot-walk transition using my voice and seat. I realized that for softening my butts, BUT standing erected in the saddle, and still following the horse movement.
    I had soften the my middle back. I was surprised to feel that I squeezed my inside.

    The first day I had cramps down there LOL!

    I got a new post on my blog about seat, I would love your POV.

  4. Sorry I cannot spell this morning!

  5. When I was pregnant, I religiously did the routine in this book. It is just fantasic.

    Maternal Fitness: Preparing for a Healthy Pregnancy, an Easier Labor, and a Quick Recovery By Julie Tupler.

    I ended up with a pelvic floor of steel LOL! It did not help as I had a traumatic pregnancy I ended up to have an emergency caesarean at 36 weeks. But my abds were ready to squeeze that baby out LOL!

  6. Muriel- To stabilize the spine we need the pelvic floor, but also to use the transverse abdominus and internal and external obliques. People often concentrate too much on the rectus abdominus and neglect the deeper abdominal muscles. By using them all together we can get a really strong support for the spine. Which is not to say contract them, but rather to keep a sort of dynamic tension in all the muscles, almost a feeling of just being on the edge of contracting them. A "readiness", perhaps? I sometimes use the mental image of planting my feet and getting ready to punch somebody. It's sort of like that.

    I use my pelvic floor to do downward transitions and half halts. It's something that isn't really much talked about in riding, maybe because the old masters were all men and didn't know about their pelvic floor? *L*

    I have planned caesareans because of the trauma to my back. Vaginal births are quite traumatic to the pelvis, I don't need any more of that! But I think riders in general are very good at giving birth.....we've got a lot of strength down there from riding!

  7. Award for you over on my blog!

  8. I had to have surgery for a herniated disk at L5 about 5 years ago. You have given very good advice here. Regular abdominal and back strength exercises have kept me pain free since the surgery.


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