The joints in your spine are a common cause of your lower back pain:
The disc and joints of the low back are elegantly designed to handle a large portion of the weight and load put upon the spine by daily activities. The lumbar spine is oriented with a forward bowing called a lordosis. The joints “stack” upon the next therefore the center of gravity of the body loads through the joints and discs, instead of completely from muscle activity.
Joints, and why they are overlooked:
The facet joints are one of the main ways your spine moves! There is one on either side of the spine(see picture below). In total there are 230 movable joints in your body whose function are fluid movement. These facet joints co-ordinated with muscle engagement create movement for bending, extending, or twisting of your body.
Joints are overlooked because we don’t realize we have so many joints in our body and how important they are. We often “see” our spine as just one unit, or don’t really think about it at all. We often don’t realize their importance until it is too late, and long term imbalance has created joint stress and even joint damage such as arthritis.
The lumbar spine joints:
It’s easy to see the purpose of the lumbar joints because they face each other like two hands touching. This means the joints can move like two hands sliding forward and back on each other.
This means that lumbar facets are primarily for flexion and extension of the spine. Some rotation of the lumbar spine is possible, but only with bending the spine forward, and much of that movement comes from the lumbar spine disc and its ability to twist. The disc and joints need balance and have specific motions they are designed to do and the joints have unique orientations and shapes that help them support your structure.
How things can go wrong and cause your lower back pain and joint stress:
If a muscle in the hip is imbalanced, one side of your muscle and joint complex will begin to stiffen to pick up the load of that imbalance. Stiffening of a joint and loss of motion changes the “movement segment” meaning the bio-mechanics incapable of their normal design. Just like a car, when the wheels are out of alignment, wear and tear accumulates until an axle or tire gives out.
The same goes with your body. If one hip doesn’t have the same function as your other hip, the body is so smart, little nerve sensors go to work to try to re-align your body as you move. If it did not, you would walk around limping to one side and that is not very efficient. Movement is one of the most important aspects of survival and living. In order to keep you moving, micro- changes can happen that eventually lead to a “weak link” or compensation pattern in your spine causing your lower back pain.
Your joints are filled with nerve bundles. They are like door hinges and gears with little computer chips inside of them.
A sixth sense, Proprioception:
Our subconscious ability to know where our body is in space goes beyond the sense of touch, so I often call it the sixth sense. Take a moment to stop, and feel your arm from your wrist to your elbow. You can actually focus in, and feel the sensation and signals the nerves are sending and receiving from that area, but usually, subconsciously, your brain is doing all that work for you.
When mechanoreceptors(nerve endings in your joint capsule) of the joint feel movement, the muscles they are associated with receive proper nerve signaling as well. This nerve signaling helps them know where they are during any movement. This “position sense” is called proprioception. It’s your ability to catch yourself when you are falling, or even signal how far down to stretch to pick something up. All of these movements are “data” to your spinal joints and muscles. You don’t know it, but they are always at work.
This means 100% of your day, you are having a MOVEMENT EXPERIENCE
As a joint stiffens from compensation, it loses proprioception and another series of nerves get “turned up” called Nociceptors, which are pain fibers throughout your body. So if a joint loses motion, the muscle will tighten around it and some research even explains that muscles can get confused and lose their “proprioception.”
This can explain why someone may continually have back pain flair ups. Their mechanoreceptors are down-regulated, which means their body has trouble regulating their joint>muscle>nerve connection. It’s as if their “circuit breaker” fuse is constantly blowing.
What causes this loss of joint motion to begin with? It may be poor co-ordination or movement flow between the nerve, joints, and muscles/fascia of the body from an injury, repetitive movement or posture that has put stress upon your body.
Muscle strain or compensation can be caused by any of the following:
- Postural stress
- Emotional stress
- Genetic structural imbalance (compressed vertebrate, short leg bone etc.)
- Overuse (sports and job duties)
- Visceral referral
- Faulty neurologic signaling to the muscle (post surgery, never activated at birth, injury)
This drawing is meant to represent the communication network between the joints, muscles, fascia and the central nervous system. It works similar to a circuit breaker hooked up to the brain’s supercomputer.
The body wants alignment and movement efficiency, so it will guard that area and try to compensate where their is a “hiccup” in movement flow. I’ve seen it derive from ankle injuries, tight groins, weak hips and many other causes. This will cause joint stiffening and faulty nerve and muscle signalling. One false move can often be the tipping point for this spinal joint to “give out” and for the body to lock up in spasm.
If you go to your general practitioner for pain medicine, or let it rest, the pain may eventually go away. But did that fix the problem?…..no. A functional chiropractor’s main job is to figure out if you have lost normal movement in spinal joints, muscles, or you have fibrous adhesion in your fascia. We want to fix your lower back pain at the source not just treat your pain.
In Chiropractic this has been called the Vertebral Subluxation Complex. It is the correlation of muscle, joint, and fascia imbalance and the nerve and inflammatory changes those cause.
The adjustment a Chiropractor performs is specific to the joints that are no longer moving, and analyzing the direction that they need to start moving, it’s as simple as that. The Doctor will check range of motion, watch the body move, check posture and palpate the joints to see which of them don’t move and in which direction they have stopped moving.
When the adjustment re-introduces movement, mechanoreceptors wake up and so does proprioception, while turning down the pain signals of nociception. Pretty amazing stuff. The best part is, in combination with rehabilitation, you can re-learn an old pattern of proper movement in your body. Spinal manipulation and strengthening and re-activating go hand in hand because we want to “re-wire” the faulty movements that caused the imbalanced joint in the first place!
Would you like to know one of the greatest causes of increased lumbar stiffness and loss of good nerve programming between your spinal joints and muscles? Sitting! The lumbar spine is designed to bear a large portion of the weight of your body in it’s naturally occurring lordotic curve. When you sit slouched forward, you take the spine out of its naturally occurring posture putting undue pressure on the discs. The second most common cause is moving our bodies with too much spine flexion. Lifting and reaching from our backs bowed forward like a fishing pole instead of lifting from our hips and core.
How to see if your lower back pain is being caused by joint imbalance:
- Get on all fours and arch your back up and then let it sink down. This is called Cat/Camel in yoga. You can often feel if one side of your spine is more malleable and movable. If one side is habitually tighter, even with stretching, this could be joint imbalance.
- Sit tall and reach your hands around to the back of your spine. You can often feel if one side is tighter. Palpate with a soft touch and it can be fairly obvious if one side moves better than another. This could be a faulty communication pattern between your joints, muscles and nerves.
- Stand up and kick one leg back about three feet while still keeping the hands on the back like in exercise 2. Do you feel that it’s harder to perform a kick back on one side vs the other? Do one side of your back muscles fire excessively when you extend your foot back.
- Get checked: If you have chronic back pain I encourage you to make chiropractic a part of your health care plan of action. Many D.C.’s will go the extra mile and help you with exercises and soft tissue work in conjunction with the adjustment I mentioned above. See our special offers page for more details.
- Adjustments for performance. I see many amateur and some elite athletes. We have found by working together the adjustment takes their movement flow and performance to the next level in conjunction with soft tissue therapies.
YOUR BODY DOESN’T HAVE TO PERMANENTLY BE IN PAIN! The nerve communication to the joint and muscle can change drastically with chiropractic care.