Have you ever heard anyone complain about how loose and mobile their hip flexors feel? No? Me neither! Everybody seems to have hip flexor tightness, especially those with low back pain. So why do you have tight hips, and how are they related to back pain?
When you have hip flexor tightness, the hip has limited motion into extension, or going behind the body. We need hip extension to walk, and even more hip extension to run. Without it, the low back may compensate by arching to get the leg behind you, in an effort to keep you moving forward in space. Excessive arching of the low back can lead to tension in the muscles next to the spine and compression of the joints – both of which can lead to discomfort.
Another possible compensation for hip flexor tightness is pelvic rotation. Again, in order to get the leg behind the body, the pelvis and lowest part of the spine may rotate backwards. To keep you going straight forward versus veering off into innocent bystanders, your back will have to rotate somewhere else further up the chain. These rotational forces at various parts of the spine can create strain on both muscles and joints.
So if your tight hip flexors are limiting your hip extension mobility each and every step while you walk, you may be causing additional strain on your back. This is magnified when you run, and particularly if you’re a runner progressing to faster paces, as we need even more hip motion at increased speeds. Because of this, hip flexor tightness may be a contributor to low back pain in runners.
How do we fix this? One option is to stretch the hips. This will help if you do, in fact, have short hip flexors. Stretching and hip mobility drills followed by exercises that use your new range of motion into hip extension can help to decrease discomfort in your low back. Try a stretch followed by a strengthening exercise for the muscles on the opposite side of the body:
Resistive hip flexor stretch
Hip extension bridge
On the other hand, you may be thinking, “I stretch my hip flexors all the time! It doesn’t help!” Well I hear you – stretching them may not be what you need if you already have full range of motion. This is because they may be feeling tight, without actually being short. Your hip flexors may be perceived as tense because they are working to stabilize you day in and day out. If this is the case, your hip flexors are likely compensating for lack of stability – which is why we’ve written about core strength and low back pain. If you’re able to get your leg behind your body easily without arching your back or rotating your pelvis, then you likely fall into this group – check out these suggested stability drills for relief!
In summary, to relieve hip flexor tightness, you must first identify if it’s true or perceived. Exercises to promote stability and strength of multiple muscles around the hips are crucial for both eliminating tight hip flexors and reducing low back pain. Stretching may be beneficial for some, but it may not be as necessary in others and likely won’t solve the root of the issue. Instead, strengthening through all ranges of motion is going to be more effective in eliminating tight hip flexors and reducing strain on the low back with any activity, from a short walk to a long run.
Give these exercises a try for 2 weeks, and if you’re still struggling, call or e-mail us for an appointment! For more helpful tips and tricks, sign up for our newsletter by filling out your info in the sidebar on our blog page.