You know that Annie song, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile?” Well, sometimes it can be hard to smile when your body is in pain or discomfort. As you know, pain is very subjective and personal. It’s hard to define what your own pain feels like, but you know that it’s real, and if not addressed, can be socially, physically and emotionally debilitating.
When I first met my client “Mary,” she complained of a constant “tightness” in her low back, and occasional minor knee pain. When asked how she felt most days, she said she was a level 3 or 4 on the pain scale. [The pain scale goes from 0-10; 0 means you are pain-free, and 10 means you are experiencing the worst pain you’ve ever had.] Her doctor had cleared her for exercise and (most importantly to her,) playing tennis, her favorite past time.
For Mary to get back on the court, she needed to feel better, right? Diving a bit deeper, she needed to learn how to move better so she did not trigger her back and knee pain. In Mary’s case, every time she planted her feet to take a right hand volley, her low back and knees would “talk to her,” (and not in a good way.) Our bodies are beautifully designed, but sometimes overuse or inefficient movement patterns cause our bodies pain, so they begin to compensate. Compensation means you can still do the task, like returning that right hand volley, but at a cost—the mis-use or overuse of other muscles. In this case, Mary’s back muscles and thigh muscles were taking over for her weak or “sleeping” glutes (butt,) increasing the load on Mary’s back and knees, until they began to hurt. We see this compensation pattern often at Re-Kinect. When the butt is not firing and doing its job, other muscles in the body will take up the slack. Too much strain on these other muscles, and the nearby joint structures (in this case back and knees) will inevitably experience discomfort and pain.
To help Mary get back on the court, we had to stretch what was overactive and tight (Mary’s thigh and back muscles) and activate and strengthen Mary’s glutes (butt muscles.) Of course, Mary’s program was a bit more complex than this, but you get the idea. I’ve included a couple of Mary’s first exercises in the “Home Play” section below. If Mary’s situation sounds familiar to you, try these exercises in the comfort of your own home. As with any new exercises, if these cause pain or exacerbate your existing pain, please do not continue to practice them.
1) Prone Hip Flexor/ Quad Stretch: Lie face-down toward the edge of your bed with the right foot on the floor, hip at about a right angle,) and the entire left leg (as well as most of your upper body) on the bed. Be sure the pelvis is level and the spine is straight. Bend and straighten the left knee 10 times, (tightening the butt if you can without cramping.) Switch sides (face the other direction) and repeat on the other side.
2) Isometric Bridge: Lie on your back with knees bent, spine neutral, and block or TP between your knees. Exhale to shrink-wrap abs, and push gently into heels to engage the butt without firing up the lower back. If the lower back engages, you’ll need to “dial back the intensity” so that the effort is focused on the abs and butt. Practice 2 sets of 8.
As always, I must remind you that medical exercise is not a “one-size fits all” approach. Without a thorough assessment, it is impossible for me to help you address your specific pain. There are many factors that can contribute to the human pain experience, but research shows that healthy, controlled movement that promotes correct muscle engagement (and better muscle balance) will allow you to move and feel better.
To learn more about which exercises will help alleviate your pain, please contact me at [email protected] I’d be happy to take you through a thorough assessment and determine the exercises that will work best for you.