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Bringing Things into Balance: The Relationship Between Low Back Pain and the Pelvic Floor

Cross posted from the blog of Amy Stein, Hela Health expert


The Occurrence of Low Back Pain

Low back pain is the most common cause of disability and lost work time among working-age adults in industrialized countries (1). In fact, the worldwide prevalence of chronic low back pain has been estimated to be 11.9% of the population on a given day, and 23.2% of the population in a one-month period (2). That is a significant number of people! Determining effective treatments for low back pain can be challenging for various reasons: 1. there are no clearly defined risk factors that predict the development or outcome of low back pain; 2. most patients do not present with any significant findings physiologically or anatomically; 3. and pain can generate and spread at numerous locations within the nervous system, and can constantly change (1).

Treatment of Low Back Pain

There are many challenges associated with low back pain diagnosis and outcomes. Because of this, and the fact that so many people across the globe are impacted by it, there are many options out there for treating this condition. Some methods that have been proven to be effective are spinal manipulation (a high-velocity thrust applied directly on the vertebrae, or backbones, to improve movement and decrease pain), trunk coordination, strengthening, and endurance exercises (to target deep abdominal and back muscles that help to stabilize the spine), general fitness exercise, and patient education (1). These types of interventions are certainly helpful and have allowed many individuals experiencing low back pain to return to their daily lives. However, perhaps the areas that are being addressed with these interventions are not getting to the whole story… There is another area of the body that plays a significant role in the stability of the back but does not regularly get addressed with standard treatment to low back pain: the pelvic floor.

Treating the Pelvic Floor to Address Low Back Pain

Several studies have looked at incorporating pelvic floor-specific strengthening programs in the treatment of chronic low back pain. One study looked at women who were experiencing low back pain and urinary incontinence (the involuntary leakage of urine) (3), while two others looked at individuals experiencing chronic low back pain independently in men and women (4, 5). In all three studies, investigators compared “routine” physical therapy to routine physical therapy plus the addition of pelvic floor strengthening. Results revealed that incorporating pelvic floor strengthening decreased low back pain, decreased the incidence of urine leakage in the case of urinary incontinence, improved function based on specific questionnaires, and increased pelvic floor strength and endurance (3-5). This strengthening was completed by either performing isolated pelvic floor contractions (4, 5), or performing abdominal and pelvic floor muscle contractions while performing specific stabilizing exercises (3).

The Relationship Between the Pelvic Floor and the Low Back

Why did strengthening the pelvic floor make a difference in the above studies? This is likely because the pelvic floor is one of the muscle groups that contributes to overall spine stability; the others include the diaphragm, the transverse abdominis (a lower abdominal muscle), and deep muscles in the low back (3). Several studies out of Norway and Sweden have revealed that in women without pain, the pelvic floor activates just prior to arm or leg movement (6-8). This is important because it reveals that when the pelvic floor is working efficiently, it provides stability to the trunk and pelvis, allowing for functional postures and movements to occur.

Conclusion:

The pelvic floor is an important stabilizer of the spine and pelvis, and activates just prior to movement to allow for efficient function. When an individual is experiencing low back pain, not only do the abdominals and low back muscles require strengthening, focusing on the pelvic floor can help to eliminate pain and resume daily function.

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