How To Use A Foam Roller For Lower Back Pain

Addressing one of the more common mistakes when foam rolling, and explaining how to properly foam roll for lower back pain.

foam rolling can help reduce lower back painLower back pain is one of the most common ailments we’re likely to suffer during our lives, especially as we grow older.  In fact, the National Institute of Health estimates that about 80% of adults will experience lower back pain at some point.  Moreover, the UK’s National Health Service stated that lower back pain was the cause for over 15 million lost work days in the UK during 2013.  Therefore, it’s not only a problem that’s affecting individuals, but lower back pain is also impacting the corporate bottom line.

That’s where foam rolling comes in.  Foam rolling can help with lower back pain, but perhaps not in the way that you might expect.  Please read our guide below carefully!  There are too many people out there who are foam rolling their lower back incorrectly, which could potentially aggravate their issues even further.

Table Of Contents:

Understanding The Cause of Lower Back Pain

Before your lower back pain can be treated, it first must be understood.  Unfortunately, there are dozens of causes of lower back pain, each with varying degrees of severity, and understanding what is causing your pain can be complicated!

  • Spondylosis is a general term that refers to spinal degeneration via normal wear and tear as we get older.  It is very often the cause of lower back pain.
  • Traumatic injuries, such as car accidents or sports injuries, can often lead to lower back pain.  Traumatic injuries can injure the tendons, ligaments, or muscles in and around the back, and can also cause herniated or ruptured spinal discs.
  • Sciatica is caused by compressed nerves in your lower back, and can cause pain that radiates from your back all the way down to your toes.  The pain is often described as “burning” and “shooting”, and sciatica can even cause numbness and muscle weakness in the leg.  Sciatica can be a fairly serious issues, so if you think you might have it please see a doctor.

Some of the risk factors involved with lower back pain are:

  • Age.  Generally, lower back pain begins between ages 30 and 50, and is more common among the older population.  This is because our spine is constantly degenerating as we get older and, in fact, pretty much every adult over the age of 50 has Degenerative Disc Disease to some degree.  As we age, we also lose muscle elasticity and joint flexibility.  Luckily, these are two of the problems that foam rolling can really help improve, so if you think your back pain might be age-induced, please read on to see some of our foam rolling exercises for lower back pain.
  • Fitness Level.  Lower back pain is more common in people who are less physically fit, due to weaker leg, back, and abdominal muscles.
  • Weight.  Back pain is also more common in overweight and obese individuals, due to increased stress on the back and spine.

How NOT to Foam Roll Your Lower Back

how not to foam roll lower back pain
A perfect example of how not to use your foam roller if you suffer from lower back pain. This method can seriously aggravate your underlying mechanical issues.

Here comes the “gotcha” that we hinted about up top.  The truth is that it’s actually recommended that you don’t foam roll your lower back.  You’ve probably seen someone at the gym with a foam roller underneath their lower back – I know I have.  There’s an example image on the left – taken from Pinterest – showing someone incorrectly foam rolling their back.  It’s a common misconception that, depending upon the cause of your lower back pain, could actually end up making things worse.  Why is this the case?  As pointed out on a National Academy of Sports Medicine blog post, foam rolling is effective in two scenarios:  by alleviating the side effects of active or latent trigger points, and by influencing the autonomic nervous system.  While these can both be used for great relief in most of the body, the action itself requires that you slowly roll – about one inch per second – across the affected area until you find a trigger point.  This is the crux of the problem.  The National Institute of Health states that most lower back pain is mechanical in nature, meaning there is a disruption in the way the components of the back (the spine, muscle, discs, and nerves) work together.  Putting a foam roller under your lower back forces your spine into an unnatural, arched position, which can aggravate those underlying mechanical issues even more.

The Correct Way To Foam Roll Lower Back Pain

Don’t be scared or put off by the above paragraph.  If you suffer from pain in your lower back, your foam roller can still be useful, just perhaps not in the way that most people would intuitively think.

Hip Flexors

The first exercise that can help with pain in your lower back is actually  foam rolling the hip flexors.  Everything in the body is inter-connected, and a tight muscle in one area of the body can actually cause soreness and aching in another area.  The hip flexors connect to the lumbar spine, so their inflexibility (for example, caused by sitting for extended periods of time) is often the cause of lower back issues.

The excellent video below shows the proper form for this exercise, and also has some tips on avoiding other common foam rolling mistakes.

Tip: When foam rolling the hip flexors, we generally prefer to use a half-sized roller, such as the Rumble Roller Half Size.  It’s a little easier to maneuver under the body than a full-sized roller.

We also highly recommend the GRID foam roller, as well as the inexpensive LuxFit foam roller.

To compare all three, check out our in-depth reviews.

 

Glutes

Next, you need to foam roll the glute muscles.  A December 2015 study published in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation found that core strengthening exercises, and specifically strengthening the gluteus maximus, helped reduce lower back pain (Kumar, 2015).  Futhermore, a study soon to be published in the European Spine Journal found that people with lower back pain tend to have weaker (and more tender) gluteus medius muscles than those without back pain (Cooper, 2015).

So it looks like it’s time to get snapping sonny, and whip those glutes into shape!  We’ve dedicated a whole page to foam rolling gluteus maximus, which also contains some strengthening exercises.  For a quick peek, the videos below shows foam rolling techniques for the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus, respectively.

Calves

The final foam rolling exercise to alleviate lower back pain is the calves.  Vladimir Janda, the “Father of Rehabilitation”, founded a school of muscle rehabilitation based on muscle imbalance.  His research found that

Triceps Surae tightness is often the hidden cause of low back pain.

(The triceps surae, for those of us not hip on Latin, is more commonly known as the calf muscle.)  Therefore, when the calf muscles are tight, the body’s center of mass will shift slightly.  This shift causes overactivation in the spine as it attempts to maintain an erect posture.  Over time, this will put abnormal compression and stress on the lumbar spine area, and thus cause lower back pain.  Restoring normal calf muscle flexibility can therefore eliminate lower back pain caused by triceps surae tightness, which sounds like the perfect job for a foam roller.

Foam rolling calves is a straight-forward exercise; here’s a quick YouTube video that walks through the proper form:

Best Stretches for Lower Back Pain

Now that you know that foam rolling your lower back isn’t actually the best way to alleviate lower back pain (and can actually cause injuries), and you know how to properly foam roll for lower back pain, it’s time to add in some more stretches.  These stretches will increase flexibility, and work in conjunction with foam rolling to eliminate your lower back issues.

Here are the stretches you should be doing, followed by a great video demonstration:

  • Dog/Cat Stretch
  • Child’s Pose
  • Lumbar Stretch
  • Hamstring Stretch
  • Glute Stretch


Other Tips For Reducing Lower Back Pain

Now that you know how to foam roll lower back pain away, as well as some great stretches to keep the pain at bay, let’s examine some other tips for preventing lower back pain.

  • If you work in an office, drive or fly for extended periods of time, or are otherwise sitting most of the day: take breaks often.  For every 30-minutes of sitting that you do, try to take a 5 minute break to get up and walk around.
  • In addition to the breaks, try to sit in various positions throughout the day.  Changing your position even slightly can change which muscles are engaged.
  • Try to work standing up, rather than sitting down.
  • Create a stretching routine, then follow it every day.

 

References:

Kumar, T., Kumar, S., Nezamuddin, M., & Sharma V. (2015). Efficacy of core muscle strengthening exercise in chronic low back pain patients. Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 28(4), 699-707. http://doi.org/10.3233/BMR-140572.

Page, P., Frank, C., & Lardner, R. (2010). Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance: The Janda Approach. Human Kinetics.

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