If you’re living with back pain, you’re not alone. A recent snapshot of Australians’ back health, by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) reported that one in six of us – or 16% of the population – sought treatment for back pain in 2015.
The AIHW research found that 14% of people living with long-term back problems had constant or persistent pain. A further 86% experienced pain one day per week. That’s around 3.7 million people, many of whom experience ongoing back issues that can significantly impact their quality of life.
But it may surprise many of them to learn that it might be overdoing the exercises – not underdoing them – that’s causing some of the pain.
The link between underactivity in the deep abdominal muscles and back pain is well established. However, in the case of lower back pain, overactive abdominals are now recognised as being a leading contributor.
To work and move efficiently, our bodies need a balance of muscle strength and muscle length around each joint. If your muscles are not balanced, the joints they support can be directly affected.
There are multiple causes of muscle imbalance, including poor posture, repetitive movement, and injury.
How does overworking abdominal muscles cause back pain?
While strengthening your abdominal muscles may be an integral part of a sound fitness regime, focusing exclusively on developing your six-pack or getting ‘rock hard abs’ can be risky. Constantly tensing or sucking in your abdominals can lead to overactivity in your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles.
While it’s true that underactive abdominals can also cause back pain, doing countless sit-ups to ‘strengthen your ‘core’ is unlikely to fix the problem. In fact, it may aggravate it.
The four major muscles commonly referred to as the ‘core’ work as a unit.
These muscles are:
- The diaphragm (breathing muscle)
- The transversus abdominis (deep abdominal muscles)
- The multifidus (deep back muscles)
- The pelvic floor muscles
Overworking these abdominal muscles may tighten your core to the point where your posture, movement and breathing are impacted.
Many exercises that claim to strengthen your core are taught incorrectly (“suck your tummy in,” “stiffen your spine and keep it straight,” “tense your tummy”) and can lead to overactive abdominal muscles.
Core stability requires flexibility with control. Exercises that promote the idea of a stiffened up spine or over contracting abdominal muscles are the main cause of overactive abdominals and can lead to ongoing back pain.
What are the symptoms of overactive abdominals?
There are a number of key signs that overactive abdominals may be causing your back pain. These include:
- Constant/stubborn back pain.
- Pain, soreness and stiffness in the morning.
- Unpredictable bouts of severe back pain.
Unpredictable bouts of severe pain can be stirred up by simple tasks or quick movements such as picking up a newspaper from the floor, a quick sudden turn when reaching or even coughing and sneezing. Patients describe the pain as a sharp, grabbing pain that normally limits their movement for a period of time.
What exercises can be done to treat overactive abdominals?
The first aim is to reduce any existing muscle tightness, joint stiffness and nerve tension as a result of overactive abdominals by means of manual therapy.
Then a number of exercises may be used, including:
- Diaphragmatic breathing.
- Hip joint flexibility exercises.
- Lower limb muscle stretches.
- Core control exercises.
- Gluteal muscle and stability strengthening.
- Customised exercise rehab or posture will be taught.
To correct muscle imbalance, it’s best to visit spinal specialist or physiotherapist who can teach you how to perform these exercises correctly.
With skilled supervision, you can learn to activate the muscles correctly to help restore healthy biomechanical function and posture.
Our skilled physiotherapists are trained in a range of pain-relieving therapies including dry needling and the mulligan concept. These therapies are designed to relieve pain and increase your range of movement. They are used in tandem with your targeted exercise program to address muscle imbalance and restore spinal health.