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Unloading Your Lower Back.
The Equestrian Mechanic
Most amateur and professional riders, regardless of their discipline, experience lower back pain at one time or another. This can be attributed to loading of the lower back due to the mechanics of riding and the effects of gravity. Mainly, the forces appear to be concentrated at the base of the spine where the lower back meets the pelvis. Under these circumstances, the injury to the lower back causing pain and stiffness appear to be a form of a repetitive strain injury. To understand this further you need some background on lower spine mechanics. The spine is designed to undergo a certain amount of loading without problems. Actually, moderate loading is beneficial to the health of the spine. The key is to not load any one structure continuously. The spine should ideally have load alternated between the joints and the discs of the spine. This allows waste products to be essentially squeezed out and nutrients let into the tissues. This is necessary for spinal health, because the spine has a poor blood supply. This is why walking is an excellent spinal health exercise. It alternates load between the joints and the discs appropriately. When the lower back is arched, (forward pelvic tilt) the majority of forces are on the joints of the lower spine. When the lower back is flattened, (backward pelvic tilt) the majority of forces are on the discs and the vertebral bodies of the lower spine. When the forces of gravity meet the forces generated by the ground and the horse through the saddle, there is loading, (compression) in the joints of the lower spine with a forward tilting of the pelvis. This can cause restriction, lack of mobility, pain, stiffness and shortening of certain muscle groups. Over time this can lead to premature degenerative, (arthritic) changes in this area of the spine, shortening the riders career and decreasing their quality of life.
One way to help with this issue is to practice regularly unloading your lower spine joints. To do this we need some basic understanding of how our muscles function to protect our spine. In general, some muscles act to create a small amount of compression in the joints, which can protect them against minor forces, but still allow them to have some movement, which allows nutrients to get into the tissues. Other muscles, act to create large amounts of compression in essence to lock the joint together to protect against large forces and not allow movement. We need both muscle systems to work; however they need to work at the right time. The repetitive strain of riding tends to increase spinal compression in the joints. The exercise we are going to discuss will teach the rider to minimize the large muscle forces and maximize the smaller forces in order to create proper compression in the lower spinal joints. The key muscle group we are trying to train in this exercise is the lower abdominal wall. The lower abdominal wall has attachments into the lower spine and pelvis. When this muscle is properly activated it helps to unload the lower spine joints and cause relaxation in the larger muscles in the lower back. The lower abdominal wall is activated in response to a pelvic floor muscle contraction. It is very important that these muscle contractions are gentle and consistent. This is not a case for harder is better. If the maximum you can do would be a 10/10, this contraction should be a 4-5/10.
The rider should start by laying on his/her back flat on the floor with their knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Now relax everything and concentrate on your breathing. As you breath in feel your lower ribcage expand and your belly slightly rise up. Then let all your air out and feel your lower ribcage settle back in and you upper belly settle in. Keep this breathing pattern through the entire exercise set. As you continue your breathing, become aware of any tension in your ribcage, shoulders, hips or neck. Try to let that go and just concentrate on your state of relaxation. Now as you breath out gently contract the muscles you would use to stop your self from urinating. Again, this is a gentle, contraction of these muscles not an abrupt contraction. As this happens you may feel a slight tightening of your lower abdominal wall. Reinforce this tightening by gently drawing your lower abdominal wall in toward your spine. This is all happening as you exhale. Now continue your breathing while holding this muscle contraction for about 15 seconds. Your breathing should mostly be coming from your upper belly and lower ribcage. This is difficult for some riders to maintain. If you feel any other part of your body begin to tighten up, start over and focus on keeping it relaxed. Once you have mastered this you can go onto step 2. After you have attained the lower abdominal wall contraction, increase the contraction slightly by using your lower abdominal wall to gently push your lower back into the floor. This creates a slight backward pelvic tilt and will unload the lower spinal joints. As you are doing this, be careful not to allow any other part of your body to tighten up. Keep your neck, shoulders and hips relaxed, while maintaining your breathing. Most people find this difficult at first. Again, try to hold this contraction for about 15 seconds. Ideally you will want to do this 10 times per day holding each contraction for 15 seconds. This is one good way to help promote lower spinal health in riders by unloading your spine daily. If you have lower back stiffness or pain which persists after doing this exercise daily for about 2-3 weeks, you may need to consult a doctor of chiropractic, sports medicine physician or physical therapist for diagnostic work-up and comprehensive care.
Hides J. 2001 Integrating approaches for the treatment of lumbo-pelvic pain. (Presented in) 1st international conference on movement dysfunction. Edinburgh
Hodges P. 2002 Science of stability: Clinical application to assessment and treatment of segmental spinal stabilization for low back pain. Indianapolis
Richardson C A, Jull G A, Hodges P W, Hides J A, (1999) Therapeutic exercise for spinal segmental stabilization in low back pain. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh