Thursday, October 13, 2011

Release Your Psoas

The author is an avid inline skater, and has skated inlines since 1991 both indoors and street, after having learned to skated indoors on quads in childhood.  Around 2006, however, I noticed that certain skating moves were difficult-to-impossible for me to perform -- namely any movements involving deep squats and kneebends.  In recognition of this dis-ability, I began doing stretching exercises (yoga--though I didn't realize it at the time) on my bed at night to loosen my hip muscles.  Though well-intentioned, my efforts were unfocused and clumsily executed. By that I mean that there were easier and more effective ways to achieve what I had set out to accomplish, but I wouldn't learn that for several years yet.  Skating was not the only activity that betrayed my dis-ability; physical intimacy often entails movements and positions that utilize the hips (go figure), and full effectiveness was hampered by this.  Beyond that, vigorous sexual activity would sometimes produce back discomfort and pain a day or two later, as men will reluctantly attest.

I can recall the origins of chronic intermittent lower back pain, experienced primarily in the right lower back.  In the early '00s (after the dot-com collapse) I was on a date in Midtown Atlanta, and had used my company's controlled-access parking garage to avoid being overcharged for parking.  After the event was over, I realized that I'd left my parking pass in the car and that my date and I were locked out of the garage.  Without going into a lot of detail, I entered the garage at the 2nd-story level and was able to get to the car so we could leave.  I believe that the pain surfaced on that night.

Some time in 2007 I made the personal acquaintance of a physical therapist.  On informing her to the pain in my back and the dis-ease in the hips, she recommended a series of stretches to enhance flexibility and alleviate the pain. The stretches did provide some degree of relief, but I was not completely diligent at performing the exercises due to the lack of structure and the lack of a clear connection between the exercises and relief.  Sometimes the pain would subside, other times not.

A motorcycle was my primary mode of transportation during the years I was a graduate student (2007 - '09).  On multiple occasions, the back pain flared-up after a ride. I mistakenly attributed the flare-ups simply to wearing a heavy knapsack while riding.
In the summer following grad school, I resumed skating but was still plagued by inflexibility through the hips which prevented me from free motive expression.  Skating was starting to become routine and less-satisfying than ever before.  I sensed that my skating, understood as performance art, was "trapped in a box."  In response to this, I thought of different ways to make it fun again.  Toward this end, I endeavored to master a particular skating maneuver called "side surfing" whereby the skater moves with feet pointing at 12 and 6 o'clock, with respect to the direction of motion.  I practiced flexibility exercises using the lines on the linoleum floor to align and space my feet.  I also used a wood plank in the same way, with the added benefit of it serving as a platform to simulate the dynamic balance required during skating.  

I reached a crucial juncture when I began to use online resources (Wikipedia, etc.) to study the musculature of the hips.  In this way I learned that the source of my discomfort and inflexibility was in the hip flexor muscles.

Arguably, the most important (as it regards this discussion) of the hip flexors are the iliacus and the psoas major, collectively termed the iliopsoas or 'inner hip muscles.'  Flexors are responsible for pulling the knees toward the chest; without the iliopsoas, it is impossible the raise the knees above the hips from a seated position.   Here, I achieved a breakthrough because illustrations on the website depicted how the psoas major connects from the hipbones to the 5 lumbar vertebrae and the last thoracic vertebra.  At last I'd located the source of my back pain. Knowledge of the mechanism of the pain encouraged and empowered me to seek targeted solutions for dispelling it.  
I also learned that the specific type of muscle fiber composing the iliopsoas was particularly prone to pathological contraction often resulting from from disuse.  
Persons engaging in a largely sedentary lifestyle (office workers, e.g.) will need to exercise their flexors regularly to prevent this muscular shortening.

In the process of searching for exercises to lengthen the flexors, yoga quickly and inadvertently surfaced as the clearest path to returning to health. Per Yoga Journal, "The psoas, a bridge linking the trunk to the legs, is critical for balanced alignment, proper joint rotation, and full muscular range of motion."  Several skeleto-muscular pathologies can emerge from a shortened iliopsoas:

If the iliopsoas and other hip flexors are tight, they pull down and forward on the pelvis, which tilts the pelvis forward and compresses the lower back. Picture a man standing with the front of his pelvis tilting forward and his tailbone lifting. To stand upright, he has to overarch his lower back. Anatomically, this is called hyperextension; commonly, it's called "swayback." Prolonged standing or sitting in this position increases pressure on the facet joints of the lower spine, which can contribute to arthritis in those joints.

No comments:

Post a Comment