Do you ever notice that your body won’t move the way you want it to? People are made to move, and we will find a way to do it one way or another. We will substitute the use of one muscle for another in order to stabilize ourselves in a way that seems comfortable at first. We may choose to use a muscle that is not as big or strong as the muscle that is intended to be used for these motions. When we do this repeatedly, patterns of sore muscles, tendons or ligaments develop. We will experience early fatigue and cannot generate our full power when using the incorrect muscles.
Several common patterns of muscle substitution exist. Muscles are categorized in three ways. Muscle pairs move our body parts forward and back, side to side and rotationally. There is a balance of function between muscle groups on opposite sides of the body. For example, the muscle that bends your elbow (bicep) is paired with the muscle that straightens your elbow (tricep). Another common pattern involves imbalance of strength between the muscles that bend the knee (hamstrings) and the muscles that straighten the knee (quads). Quads tend to be stronger than hamstrings causing the kneecap (patella) to feel compressed or the tendon on the front of the knee to ache.
Similarly, the abdominals or core muscles pair with the low back muscles. One of the most common patterns happens when we try to stabilize our core with weak abdominals. Many people may find that they begin to substitute with their low back muscles instead. This can cause too much pressure on the low back muscles and result in low back pain. The muscles in the front of our hip (hip flexors) that lift the leg when marching often pair with the low back muscles to help stabilize the core. This can further complicate the pattern and make it difficult to figure out how to get the low back to release.
For your consideration, the next time you have back pain and are unable to get it to resolve by treating the back directly, you may benefit by treating another area that relates to this functional pattern. You may get your back pain to resolve by strengthening your core or stretching your hip flexors. The physical therapists at Specialized Physical Therapy can help you to identify which muscles you may need to stretch or strengthen to relieve the pain you are experiencing.