Back pain stretching: What is a muscle spindle?

Fredric Bender | | comments: 0

Most people know that lower back pain is often the result of compression of the lumbar discs. Modern-day causes can include long periods of sitting at a computer with poor posture and weak muscle support. Stretching is important to reduce this compression, but the intensity with which one stretches varies greatly from person to person and can affect outcome.

At the first sign of back pain, people tend to overstretch into stiffness. Within the belly of striated muscle tissue lie “spindles” which are sensory receptors that pick up the speed and intensity of a stretch. If a stretch is too fast or too intense, the spindles trigger a reflex arc to the spinal cord and back out to the muscle to contract in order to protect one from tearing the muscle fibers (as pictured below).

One’s mind wants to go one way, but one’s spindles know better and intercede. What results is that one wrongly equates a feeling of stiffness and resistance with stretching when in reality one is actually locked into a contraction and going nowhere.

For this reason, I never instruct my back students (or any students for that matter) to stretch. Instead, I encourage them to lengthen into softness and maintain that length patiently over time. This keeps the muscle spindles at bay. They habituate to the new length and fire less frequently. The muscles sense they are safe and can release deeper into the length. This brings  much more differentiated sensation and a feeling of openness and space. This slowly breaks the protective holding pattern or reactivity commonly found among those who suffer back pain. 

The student can then use the breath to refine the lengthening. In other words, rather than using the body parts to stretch, one uses the breath to explore the inner space, gently increase volume, decompress, and develop a better self-awareness and connection within.

However, all stretching and no strengthening is a lopsided approach. More about the proper combining of the two in a future blog post.

Take a class

I have applied these principles in my lower back yoga class with twenty-eight practices to alleviate compression of the lumbar discs. If you'd like to try it, it is available as an iphone app. See a preview.


1 Class

7 Classes

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