Pain in the…back!
How shoulder flexibility can dictate your back pain.
Ashley McLeish, PT,DPT
Whether you play volleyball, tennis, or have ever changed a light bulb before, odds are
you have experienced low back pain at some point in your life. Low back pain can be a scary
thing, especially when it pops up out of nowhere like a villain in a haunted house. You don’t
know where it came from and you’re afraid that it won’t go away.
The biomechanics of the human body dictate that the last few degrees of shoulder
flexion (overhead reach) arise from extension of the thoracic spine (mid-back). If that
extension range is not present or if the shoulder is not flexible enough to fully reach overhead
many people will compensate by arching their lower back.
This problem is amplified in young gymnasts. A study of high level gymnasts showed
that 90 percent of the athletes reported having moderate to severe back pain 10 years after
retirement. This is not surprising with the incredible amount of stress placed on immature
spines that are not fully equipped to bend in the ways they are forced to. The seemingly
forgone conclusion is that they must do more bridges and more repetitions to improve the
flexibility of a system that is built for stability. This approach typically results in a weakened
and unstable spine base that is now accepting even higher forces at a range of motion that is
not necessarily healthy for a developing skeletal system. There has been research performed
that suggests a gymnast performing a “superman” exercise places 1,400lbs of compressive
force on their spines. Many times the cause for what appears to be an inflexible back is
actually an illusion caused by a lack of shoulder range of motion.
With all of the aching backs from putting away Christmas decorations on high shelves
and gymnasts starting their competitive season, increasing shoulder flexibility relieves some
of the stress placed on the lower back when trying to reach above (and sometimes behind)
your head. The demand for sound shoulder flexibility, especially in gymnasts, is incredible and
can make or break careers (and backs)!
For decreasing lower back pain, increasing shoulder flexibility may be the relief you’ve
been looking for.
Ashley McLeish is a Doctoral graduate of the University of Southern California with a
special Interest in pediatric sports medicine. Ashley has a 13-year background as a
competitive gymnast as well as 4 years as a team head coach. Ashley treats numerous
pediatrics and gymnasts on a daily basis.