No one enjoys dealing with different aches and pains throughout their body, especially when it comes to those located in the lower back.
Whether it’s from pushing yourself too far at your last workout (which is why we highly suggest following the knowledge and guidance of a professional trainer on the Aaptiv fitness app), sleeping funny, or slouching at your desk all day, there can be many culprits that could be causing your lower back to cramp.
While the aforementioned are easily corrected with lifestyle changes, some back cramps can be an underlying sign of a greater complication happening within the body. To help us break down and differentiate the causes and symptoms, we spoke to medical professionals and health experts on the twelve different reasons why you could be experiencing pain and cramping in your lower back.
*While we trust the knowledge of our experts, it’s important to read over the potential causes and then see a medical physician to help diagnose why you may be having lower back cramps.
Starting off our list is the iconic pulled muscle, which is the most popular cause of lower back cramps. “Low back muscles and ligaments that undergo excessive or repetitive strain will ‘give out’ and go into spasm,” says Dr. Thanu Jeyapalan, Yorkville Sports Medicine clinic director. “This is generally caused by core weakness, which includes weakness in the deep muscles of your lower back. Once fatigue sets into these muscles, even the slightest turn can cause them to spasm. If you [are] someone who experiences this type of back pain often, core conditioning is a must to protect your back from future occurrences.”
The continuous hours of slouching over your computer and ignoring form at your desk could be leading your body down a dangerous path. According to Leo Turetsky, corrective exercise specialist, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES and founder of Back Intelligence, “Back cramps can be caused from sitting in a poor posture for many hours at a time, causing the muscles in the back to tighten and possibly to cramp. Especially when you sit with rounded shoulders, the mid back and upper back muscles can really cramp up.” Turetsky recommends releasing the pain using ice, proper stretching, and self massaging.
“The most overlooked cause of back cramps or spasms is your diet,” says Dr. Todd Sinett, a chiropractor and applied kinesiologist. “Anything that can create a digestive upset can reflex and affect the muscular system in the back. The pain can vary from mild tightness to absolute debilitating pain.” Ingredients in the diet that cause these complications are sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. However, there are also surprising culprits as well that could lead to too much roughage (fibrous, indigestible material), like large salads or protein bars.
Women’s Menstrual Cycle
Roughly half the population has experienced that particular time of the month, and it’s no walk in the park. According to professional medical writer and Founder of Yekize Tamsin Nicholson, “Period pain often refers to abdominal or back pain. This is caused by the uterus cramping and by nerves in the area being stimulated. Prostaglandins are responsible for most forms of period pain. Prostaglandins are released in higher levels during your period. This influx of prostaglandins can lead to cramping and back pain.”
One of the more serious conditions on our list, lower back pain can be a sign that something is up with your kidneys. While our list describes conditions that cause cramping, Nicholson would like to point out that when it comes to a kidney infection the cramp will feel more like back pain versus a back cramp (which is why it’s important to listen and pay attention to your body’s pain level tolerance). “During a kidney infection, the kidney becomes inflamed and will start to swell as it tries to fight the infection. The swelling is caused by an increase in chemicals from the white blood cells of the immune system. These chemical responses and the increased fluid from the swelling may stimulate nerves, causing a painful sensation in your back, near the kidneys,” says Nicholson.
The art of practicing breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation can impart more benefits to our body than just mental clarity. Learning proper breathing mechanics can help us avoid complications like lower back cramping. Sean Light, former strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and CEO of 4A Health, explains how, “poor breathing mechanics will cause the ribs to flare up and the pelvis to tilt forward. This directly puts pressure on the lower back and the muscles around it. As a direct result, lower back cramps and spasms (may) occur. Not to mention that your primary breathing muscle (the diaphragm) has a direct fascial connection to the lower back muscles (quadratus lumborum). Practicing more abdominal work, specifically focusing on the obliques, will help keep this problem at bay.”
“A common cause of back spasms is a sprained pelvis,” says Dr. Eugene Charles, director of The Applied Kinesiology Center of New York and author of Journey To Healing—The Art and Science of Applied Kinesiology. “The pelvic bone (specifically the sacroiliac joints) become too loose, either from prolonged sitting (sitting is the new smoking), weight gain, pregnancy, trauma, etc., and the back muscles go into spasm in an attempt to correct the loose joints.” To help alleviate the pain and correct the pelvis, Charles recommends wearing a sacroiliac belt for three weeks.
Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
“As there are many possible causes for lower back cramps, one that is often forgotten about is pelvic floor dysfunction,” says Katherine Rush, physical therapist at The Perfect Pelvis Clinic. “If the pelvic floor muscles are too tight, they can cause a constant pulling on the pelvis, which will lead to low back pain. Conversely, if the pelvic floor muscles are weak and are not functioning when they should, the low back muscles will have to overwork in order to stabilize the pelvis. This also can lead to back pain.”
Lack of Rib Cage Mobility
When it comes to flexibility and mobility, we may not consider the rib cage as being an important region of our body that needs free range of motion. However, according to Light, “If the rib cage cannot expand enough during breathing, our upper backs and neck will become engaged and try to open up the rib cage. This is usually a futile effort and, at best, you will have tension and cramps (in the lower back).” In order to avoid this, Light suggests stretching out your lats and doing more single leg and single arm exercises.
“Psychological back pain is usually triggered by stress,” says Nicholson. “During times of emotional stress, we may breathe differently, tire more easily, and take different postures than normal. All these factors can cause physical stress on your back, making you more likely to experience back pain. In addition, during emotional difficulties, we often respond to pain more severely. So stress-related back pain can be more exaggerated than other types of back pain.” Repeated findings have expressed the importance of keeping stress levels down in order to maintain healthy (both physically and mentally) bodies.
Bad Sleeping Conditions
Investing in a proper mattress may be the best money ever spent, for a wide variety of reasons—and avoiding back cramps is just one of them. “If a mattress is too hard it can put pressure on your body in the wrong places, misaligning your spine. In addition, a mattress that is too soft does not support you or your spine in the right way. This causes bad sleeping posture, which can result in back pain,” says Nicholson.
While it’s important to incorporate an exercise routine into your daily lifestyle, practicing proper form and not pushing too far are crucial elements to maintaining bodily health and fitness. Aaptiv’s trainers can guide you through workouts safely with our audio based fitness app.
One example of this is squatting deeper than your body permits. “If you try to squat deeper than your mobility will allow, you will hold yourself up with your lats,” says Light. “Your lats are a major extension muscle and will fight gravity to keep you from falling over onto your face. If the lats have to fight too hard, you can cramp hard and have trouble shutting it down for quite a while.” To prevent this, Light recommends elevating your heels when you squat, which will allow you to “squat deeper, target more of the muscles that you actually want to target when squatting and shut that lat down.”
By utilizing routines on Aaptiv’s fitness app (whether it be a strength training or meditation program), it’s possible to help prevent, eliminate, or mitigate some of the possible conditions that lead to (or cause) lower back cramps.