Low Back Pain in Runners
Low Back Pain in Running Athletes
By Thomas Michaud, DC
After 7 million years of adapting to upright postures, the lumbar spine and pelvis have become remarkably adept at managing ground-reactive forces associated with running. In fact, the inter-vertebral discs are so strong when standing upright that it is almost impossible to herniate a disc while walking or running: even the sudden application of extreme vertical forces will cause the vertebral end-plates to fracture before the inter-vertebral discs herniate. Nonetheless, gait cycle-related low back injuries do occur, and they can usually be related to a variety of bio-mechanical problems, ranging from muscle imbalances to limb-length discrepancy.
Biceps Femoris Tightness
According to Vleeming, et al., 1 an overlooked biomechanical cause of low back pain is tightness in the
biceps femoris muscle that increases tension in the sacrotuberous ligament, effectively blocking the range of sacral nutation necessary for shock absorption. Treatment in this situation involves identifying the various factors responsible for maintaining biceps femoris muscle tension and taking corrective action (e.g., biceps femoris muscle tightness may result from joint dysfunction in the lower lumbar spine and/or quadriceps / hamstring muscle imbalances). Chiropractic adjustments are often necessary to restore motion to the damaged joints, and specific stretches / exercises should be prescribed to lengthen and strengthen the hamstrings, piriformis, multifidus, and erector spinae.
Weakness of the hip abductor musculature is perhaps the most common cause of low back pain in runners. Because the gluteus medius and minimus function to keep the pelvis in a nearly horizontal position during stance phase, weakness of these muscles will cause the pelvis to tilt in the frontal plane, allowing the lumbar spine to laterally flex excessively. – 1 –
The exaggerated lumbar lateral flexion may result in chronic injury to the lower lumbar spine, especially if
the core muscles are weak. Core weakness is also problematic when the hip flexors are excessively tight
because the lumbar spine is allowed to hyperextend during propulsion.
Effective treatment requires strengthening the abdominal musculature and improving flexibility in the hip
flexors. This can be accomplished with exercises (see figure) that target the hip extensor and abductor
musculature. These exercises are particularly effective when performed on unstable surfaces, such as a
balance pad; and to enhance neural drive, the exercises can be performed by holding each position for up to 60 seconds.
HIP ABDUCTOR EXERCISES
Single-leg cone touch on unstable surface. B) Balance disk lunge. C) Standing band piriformis exercise. D)
Bridge while isometrically tensing hip abductors. E) Leg press with band around knees, producing a
co-contraction between gluteus maximus and gluteus medius. In addition, it is often necessary to perform
gait retraining in which the athlete runs on a treadmill in front of a mirror and consciously minimizes
frontal-plane motion of the pelvis.
Structural Limb-Length Discrepancy
Another somewhat controversial cause of gait-related low back pain is structural limb-length discrepancy.
Although several studies suggest limb-length differences are not associated with pain, 2/3, the majority of
research confirms a clinical connection between low back pain and limb-length discrepancy. – 2 –
By comparing the prevalence of limb-length discrepancies between 653 low back pain patients and 359
controls (the discrepancies were confirmed with radiographs), Friberg 4 found that individuals with LBP
were 1.7 times more likely to present with discrepancies greater than 5 mm, and 5.3 times more likely to
have discrepancies greater than 15 mm.
This is consistent with a review of the literature by Giles and Taylor, 5 who combined data from five
separate studies to evaluate a total population of 1,806 subjects in which limb lengths were measured with radiographs. In four of five studies, 13-22 percent of the population that sought medical attention for low back pain had a discrepancy of 10 mm or more, compared to 7 percent with no history of low back pain. This is consistent with their own radiographic study of 217 people in which 18.3 percent of the population with low back pain had a limb-length discrepancy greater than 10 mm, compared to only 8 percent of subjects with no complaints of low back pain.
Structural limb-length discrepancies can be effectively treated with the appropriately sized lift. In the study
by Giles and Taylor, subjects treated with shoe lifts reported significant reductions in pain and lost days
from work, along with increases in their overall range of motion when evaluated at four-month follow-up. – 5-
While the majority of literature supports the connection between low back pain and structural limb-length
discrepancies, the connection between functional discrepancies and low back pain is more controversial.
While functional limb-length discrepancy can occur when hypertonicity in the suprapelvic and/or pelvic
musculature produces a pelvic torsion when measured in an unloaded condition, this type of limb-length
discrepancy can be readily treated with myofascial release and specific home stretches. Quadratus
lumborum stretches are especially helpful in managing functional limb-length discrepancies.
The Role of Manipulation
In contrast, a common misconception among chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists is
that the ilium can subluxate on the sacrum and lock in that position to produce a functional limb-length
discrepancy capable of producing chronic low back pain. Despite the widespread belief that the sacroiliac
joint can subluxate, there is little evidence to support this. – 3 –
In fact, the notion that the ilium or sacrum can subluxate and be repositioned with manipulation was refuted in a roentgen stereophotogrammetric analysis (RSA) study by Tullberg, et al. 6 After embedding tantalum beads in the sacrum and ilium of 10 patients with sacroiliac joint dysfunction, these authors evaluated the position of these bones before and after high-velocity manipulation of the sacroiliac joint.
Using advanced RSA testing, Tullberg, et al., conclusively demonstrated that manipulation and subsequent
muscle-energy mobilization had no effect on the location of the sacrum or ilium in any of the subjects
tested. Because the accuracy of RSA testing identifies bony shifts as small as 0.2 mm, the authors state that twisting of the pelvis could not be the result of shifting of the sacrum or ilium, and that future studies should evaluate the effects of sacroiliac manipulation on the neighboring soft tissues and not on skeletal
The research by Tullberg, et al., makes it clear that manipulation does not reposition a vertebra from a
misaligned position to an aligned position. Rather, it is likely the clinical success associated with
manipulation can be related to the fact that manipulation breaks up adhesions present in the zygopophyseal joints of the spine, 7 improves movement asymmetries8-9 and/or stimulates mechanoreceptors – thereby reducing spinal muscle excitability, enhancing proprioception and reducing pain. -10-
While manipulation has been proven effective for the management of acute low back pain, 11-12 a
prospective placebo-controlled study by Senna and Machaly 13 demonstrates that long-term chronic low
back pain sufferers respond best to maintenance manipulations performed bimonthly for up to nine months.
The authors suggest the occasional manipulations may allow for the “early treatment of any emerging
problem, thus preventing future episodes of low back pain.” Given the massive economic burden ineffective treatment protocols place on our already stressed health care system, proven treatment regimens incorporating a range of readily available and relatively inexpensive conservative interventions such as orthotics, lifts, rehabilitative exercises, and manual therapy have been shown to provide effective, long-term solutions for the majority of running-related injuries.
– 4 –
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