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Jeff Wilcox, DPT, discusses causes and ways to prevent low back pain.


Low back pain is one of the most common complaints I am confronted with, working as a physical therapist. It is typically the result of either chronic poor posture and/or weak core strength. Both of these impairments can cause several other injuries to occur including lumbar muscle strain, disc herniations, lumbar radiculopathy, and spinal joint conditions to name a few. The low back is important because it functions to help support the weight of the upper body, and assists us in bending, twisting, extending and rotating our torso. The core muscles help maintain proper posture and stabilize the spine when walking, running, lifting, exercising, etc. So with that said, it is very important to help strengthen your core musculature and attempt to “fix” any poor postural habits to reduce the risk or even prevent the possibility of future low back injuries.

When people talk about the “core”, they are talking about muscles of the back, the abdomen, the hips and the buttocks. There are several easy exercises that can help avoid injury to the low back and keep you away from the doctor’s office and having to begin a rehabilitation program.

The first exercise is called birddog, or opposite arm and leg extension. This exercise strengthens the muscles along the spine, the back of your shoulders, your hips and buttocks. Begin on all fours (quadruped position), with your hands directly under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Keeping your head in a neutral position, looking down at the floor, tighten your buttocks and abdominal muscles, attempting to avoid arching your back. Lift one arm straight forward until it is level with your torso and at the same time lift the opposite leg, again until it is level with your torso. Balance yourself in this position for at least 5 seconds and the switch extremities and repeat.

The second exercise is call the bridge, which focus’ on strengthening the buttocks, legs, back and abdominals. Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Tighten abs and raise your buttock off the floor until your shoulder and torso makes a straight line between your shoulders and knees. Hold for a count of 10 and slowly lower and repeat.

The third core strengthening exercise is known as the plank. Begin by lying on your stomach and your forearms where your elbows are underneath your shoulders. Tighten your abdomen and buttocks and slowly push your torso up. Balance on your toes and elbows, keeping your back and legs as straight as possible. Try not to let your low back “sag.” This is a more advanced exercise. If this is too difficult at first, perform with your knees down. Again, try to make a straight line with your torso between either your feet/knees and your shoulders. Attempt to hold this position for 10 seconds. Slowly lower yourself and repeat.

The final exercise is a basic straight leg raise, which targets the lower abdominals and quadriceps (thigh muscles). Lying flat on your back, Bend one knee to 90-degrees and keep your foot flat. Tighten your abdominal muscles and push the small of your back flat. Keeping the opposite leg straight, tighten your thigh muscles and slowly lift the foot 12 inches off the floor. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 10-15 times. Repeat with other leg. Do not attempt to lift both legs at the same time.