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Short Hamstrings, The Culprit in Low Back Pain

by: Dena Glazer

What are the Hamstrings?
The hamstrings are three muscles that run up and down the back of the thighs. They attach to the the back and sides of the knee (one to the outside and two to the inside) and to the ischial tuberosity, or sitting bones. They are each a long muscle of varying lengths, having shorter muscle bellies and longer tendons in proportion to their length, where other muscles such as the quadriceps have longer muscle bellies and shorter tendons. The belly of a muscle has a good blood supply and can stretch and hold the stretch. Since tendons have a poor blood supply, they do not stretch or hold a stretch easily.

How does this relate to backs?
Because the hamstrings cross two joints (the knee and the hip), when they are shortened, they pull the buttocks down causing “tucking under” which flattens the lumbar curve (a cause of low back pain). A small amount of lengthening the lumbar curve is necessary for those who over arch the lower back. They also prevent the knees from straightening, which encourages stooping and poor posture.

What shortens the hamstrings?
1. Because the knees are bent in every sports activity, when sitting, or even walking, the hamstrings become shortened.

2. The biggest culprit in our society is chairs. Most chairs are made with the seat tilted back slightly and /or the back curved round, or tilted back. All these configurations encourage rounding of the back and a lifting of the pubic bone, or tucking under. Car seats seem to be the most universally poorly used of the seats. Almost all of them have a front to back tilt and a curved back.

3. Though I’ve not done any documented research, I have observed young people from the age of 2 through the 20's and noticed that even though they appear very flexible, the spine at L 1- 5 (lumbar) is quite immobile due to shortening of the hamstrings. This will most likely lead to low back pain as they get older. My theory is that the use of mandatory car seats has helped cause this by molding the child’s back into a “C” curve for much of the young child’s bone- forming years.( I invite observations and comments on this issue.)

What can we do about these problems?
1. The only way to stretch the hamstrings is to do specific hamstring stretches every day. Do them before and particularly after doing any other form of exercise, while the muscles are still warm. They must be done with thought and precision to get the most benefits. A qualified yoga teacher can teach you how to do them. You will need a trained eye to observe and guide you. Be sure and leave 10-15 minutes after working out to stretch properly.

2. For use in your car, position yourself to neutralize the pelvis by folding a blanket or towel to create a wedge under your sitting bones, allowing you to sit on your perineum, the space between the anus and the pubic bone. Then place another small support between the bottom of your shoulder blades and feel yourself sit up nice and tall. You will find this is a comfortable position which automatically creates a natural lumbar curve eliminating the need for a lumbar support. On long trips, vary the position of your seat from time to time. If you sit at work a lot, do this on your chair, too. Get up and stretch every hour or so, no matter where you are.