The Psoas is one of the body’s largest and bulkiest muscles and is the primary hip flexor muscle, and the primary cause of lower back pain.
It’s the muscle that helps you lift your leg at the hip joint up toward your chest. It helps you bend sideways and it flexes the torso when your legs are in a fixed position.
Now you understand the basic role and importance of the psoas and lower back pain, the following information about how it causes lower back pain will make sense to you.
Psoas and Sciatica
Being a major muscle in the lower part of the torso, when dysfunction occurs in this muscle, it causes lower back pain. The psoas muscle has a partner muscle, called the piriformis muscle. When your psoas is too tight it can affect the piriformis, which causes it to press on your sciatic nerve – causing sciatic pain that can run from the hip to the ankle.
How does the psoas muscle cause lower back pain?
The simplest way to explain how this large, thick muscle causes low back pain is that it relates to it being too tight. Tightening of this muscle causes pain, discomfort, and painful lower back spasms.
When the psoas is tightened, and you try to bend down, it contracts, affecting the smaller muscles that support the larger muscle, resulting in lower back pain and spasms, which create high levels of pain.
When your psoas is contracted while your standing, you will notice that your back is more arched than normal. It’s common to have problems bending back into the original position when this happens.
Tight hip flexor muscles like the psoas and the piriformis muscles become shorter when you spend hours sitting or workout with sit-ups, riding a bike, and some weight-training exercises.
How can you release tight psoas muscles?
- Yoga – Stretching is the best way to lengthen and loosen your psoas muscle. Practicing yoga is one of the best ways to stretch this large muscle. Yoga gets you moving and stretches out your tightened muscles, which will help reduce lower back pain and spasms.
- Moving – Sitting all day on the job is one of the ways this huge muscle becomes tight and short. If you sit for hours at work or at home, it’s important to take the time to stand up and stretch or move around routinely throughout the day.
- It’s about preventing your psoas from being in a contracted (shortened) position for long periods of time.
- Posture – Your posture will affect your psoas and supporting hip flexor muscles. Avoid leaning forward a lot when your sitting. Leaning forward shortens the psoas more. Make yourself aware of how you sit. Sit back in the chair with your feet flat on the ground, without leaning.
- Avoid hooking your feet under the chair because this also flexes the hip. Make changes to your workspace to accommodate comfortable positioning that will promote good posture.
- Stomach Sleepers – If you have been a stomach sleeper for most of your life, this will be challenging. Sleeping on your stomach hyper extends your lower back, resulting in more issues with your lower back and your psoas muscle. Try other sleeping positions like your side to prevent such problems.
- Massage – It’s recommended that you get regular massages from a licensed massage therapist. Once a week or month will help release your psoas. Massage therapists are trained to do this, but you should be aware that this massage is performed through your abdomen. If your abdomen muscles are tight, this can result is some pain or discomfort. Avoid eating before you get a massage for psoas muscle release.
- Strengthen Glutes – If your psoas and supporting hip flexor muscles are overworked, tight, and short from being constantly contracted, that muscle needs some opposing movements to release and promote balance in the hip joint.
- Your gluteus maximus muscles is one of the most dynamic and powerful muscles in your whole body. The primary role of this muscle is hip extension, which is the opposite of the psoas function of hip flexion. Working your glutes will strengthen them and will relax the psoas.
Psoas Exercises & Yoga
Psoas exercises and yoga are important tools you can use to help prevent or cure lower back pain.
This is the ultimate exercise for relaxing your psoas and strengthening your glutes. Simply lie flat on your back (preferably on a yoga mat), with both knees up while keeping your body in a straight line. Use your glute muscles to lift your body (avoid letting your buttocks to dip down and your low back to arch too much).
Squeeze your glutes at the top of the position for 10 seconds, lower slightly. Repeat this action once or twice a day. When this exercise becomes too easy, try the one-legged bridge exercise to take it to the next level.
Awaken the Psoas with Yoga
Yoga plays an important role in balancing the hip, lower back, and the body in general. However, we’re focusing on your psoas and your hips and low back pain.
There are yoga poses for both strengthening and releasing the psoas.
Strengthen the Psoas
- Supta Padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose) – Lie on your back, lift your right leg off the floor while trying to pull it to your torso. Don’t go too far. Only go as far as you can comfortably and hold that pose for several seconds.
- Repeat this movement for the left leg. This is an isometric contraction, which means your muscle is working, but it’s not changing its length. You should be able to gradually pull your leg closer into your torso as you progress.
- Navasana – This is another yoga pose that will use isometric contraction to strengthen your psoas muscles. Sit straight and tall on the edge of a chair with your arms stretched straight out in front of you. Your knees should be bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Lightly place your fingers around the top of your shins and pull a little to lift them up towards your chest. Then lean back until your elbows are straight, letting go of the shins and maintaining your arms parallel to the floor, chest lifted, and feet still flat on the floor.
- This is a good beginner’s pose for strengthening your psoas. It’s also good for a beginning core-strengthening program.
Releasing the Psoas
Before releasing your psoas muscles, it’s important to perform yoga warm-ups and the above psoas contraction poses. This way your muscles will effectively stretch and lengthen.
- Virabhadrasana I – This pose isolates the psoas stretch regardless of your yoga practice level. Use an open doorway for this pose. Place the full right side of your body up against the door jamb. Step forward with your leg through the door while placing the opposite foot a couple of feet behind you (start with 2 feet and increase to 3 feet as you can).
- Your back heel should be raised off the floor. Stretch your arms upward over your head and put your hand on the wall. Relax into the pose, breath, and slightly bend both your knees, align your pubic bones, breastbone, and navel with the door frame. Repeat with both sides of the body.
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana – After stretching your psoas, you will perform this full extension of your hips in this pose. This is the same as the bridge pose, except you pull your heels in closer to your hips. Place a yoga block between your feet and your knees. Squeeze inward with your knees. The blocks keep your thighs parallel in the pose to prevent your psoas muscles from rotating while you’re extending them. This pose, done properly, aids in reducing pain in the lower back.
Illustrations for these yoga poses can be found at Yoga International.
It’s important to check with your doctor or other health care professional and yoga or fitness professionals before trying these poses. You can do more harm than good if you do them wrong. It’s wise to learn to perform these stretches the right way to ensure you’re getting the benefits from them.
Article by Anne Keiley from Free Your Spine. Anne has suffered with back pain for many years, and in 2014 she added to that when she was diagnosed with multiple cervical herniated discs.
Anne has managed to navigate a path through her chronic pain using natural medicine and techniques. She believes in finding and dealing with the root cause of pain wherever possible.