Lower back pain is an extremely common problem that we see all the time here at Actify. On average, up to 80% of Americans will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives, and more than a quarter of the population currently deals with lower back pain on a day to day basis. And with that, up to 80% of people that have lower back pain now have a recurrence within one year. Basically, this means if you’re currently struggling with lower back pain, chances are good that at some point within the next year, it will pop back up again if you don’t fix the root cause of your pain now.
There can be many contributing factors to lower back pain, but one of the most common that we see (and BY FAR the most overlooked) is dysfunctional breathing, which starts with the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle located in the center of your body that attaches directly to your lower back and your ribs. It’s commonly thought of as “our breathing muscle.” However, the diaphragm plays a HUGE role in core stability and lower back pain.
The Diaphragm’s Role in Back Pain
The diaphragm has a dual role in respiration and core stability, and it should be able to assume this dual function at all times. Lower back pain is commonly caused by a failure of the diaphragm to perform these roles simultaneously. This can go one of two ways:
1. The marathon runner who’s exhausted at the end of their run and just trying to survive, so the diaphragm devotes all of its power to breathing and loses it’s stability function, leaving said runner with lower back pain.
2. The weightlifter who’s going for a max attempt, so the diaphragm devotes all of its power to stability and loses its breathing function, leaving other muscles to compensate for breathing, leaving said weightlifter with lower back pain.
The goal is to learn how to control the pressure on core muscles through the correct activation of the diaphragm. By utilizing breathing with your core, you are achieving proper core activation with every breath you take – and considering that we humans take over 20,000 breaths per day, it’s kind of important to be doing it correctly or something’s going to break down in the long run.
The best way to improve your core stability and reduce lower back pain is by correcting your breathing patterns.
But how do I do that? I’m glad you asked!
Breathing and Core Mechanics
When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and descends into the abdominal cavity, as shown on the left. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and assumes a “domed” position as shown on the right:
I like to frame this system as a can of soda with the top of your diaphragm being the top of the can. The diaphragm is the key pressure regulator, when it’s functioning correctly, you have a nice strong, sturdy can full of pressure, which helps muscles stabilize the spine. This helps ensure all of the attached muscles react automatically to the proper contraction of the diaphragm. If the diaphragm isn’t doing its job to manage pressure (think an open can of soda), it’s much easier to crush that can. The core muscles stop working the way they’re supposed to and other muscles have to start working harder to stabilize your spine.
The muscles that end up working harder are often your lower back muscles and hip flexors, so they end up feeling tight all of the time because they’re literally working all of the time. This leads to constant compression of the lower back, leaving you with chronic, nagging lower back pain.
If you’ve been stretching out your back and hip flexors for years and they’re still tight, it’s time to try something different. In our experience, the most effective solution is learning to correct your breathing patterns to relieve that constant pressure on your back.
Addressing Breathing and Back Pain
There are really 3 main areas to address when thinking about lower back pain and breathing:
2. Breathing (obviously)
Think back to the soda can analogy. We need to keep the top of the can stacked over the top of the bottom of the can. This means keeping the ribcage stacked over the pelvis, which sets your core in a position for optimal function. This allows your diaphragm, pelvic floor, abs and back muscles to effectively work together to support and stabilize the spine and minimize pressure on your back.
Left: Poor Position, Right: Good Position
Learning how to breathe, manage pressure and control these positions is critical to maintaining long term health of your lower back. Here at Actify, we work with each individual person to determine where their weaknesses are and craft a plan with exercises specific to their needs. This includes breathing exercises. Here’s a common exercises we use to start teaching people how to effectively breathe and stabilize their core:
1. Lay down flat on your back, knees bent, with your back pockets scooped and tucked towards your knees (so that you feel a slight stretch in your lower glutes)
2. Place a ball – about the size of a small soccer ball – between your knees so you feel a stretch in your inner thighs
3. Tuck a towel underneath your head and keep your chin away from your neck, pointed towards the ceiling.
4. Breath silently in through your nose for about 4 seconds
5. Exhale through an open mouth for 5-8 seconds, reach your hands towards the ceiling, keeping your arms straight, until your pinkies are pointed directly up (this will cause your arms to go farther than a 90 degree angle)
6. Pause for a 3-5 count
7. Repeat, keeping lower ribs still on the inhale.
Try out 3 rounds of 5 breaths 1-2x a day, and let us know if you have questions!
If you’re lifting heavy loads, ideally, you’re able to get your spine into a good position (see position above), breathe and create 360 degree expansion in your belly, sides and your lower back, almost as if you’re filling up a balloon in your belly. From there, you’d hold your breath as you lift. This is fine, as long as you do it correctly.
There are, however, A LOT of ways this can go wrong. If you have any symptoms, lower back pain or anything of that nature, then do not hold your breath until you seek out help for how to breathe and brace correctly. If you’re having to hold your breath to lift up small objects or just to bend over to tie your shoes, that’s a problem, and we should talk.
Big picture, lower back pain does not necessarily mean lower back injury or damage. Most of the time, back pain can be relieved, and your strength/stability can be improved by addressing your breathing mechanics and learning how to move/stabilize a little differently.
If you take a crack at the exercise above, but can’t seem to find the improvement you’re after, please feel free to reach out to as at Actify. We work with people like you every single day to get them back to the workouts and sports they love, without pain or movement limitations.
Request a free taster session today.
P.S. If you’d like to learn more about other common things that might be contributing to your back pain, request our FREE report 10 Easy Ways to End Back Pain…without taking painkillers or seeing a doctor. It’s our free gift to our readers.