Are You Foam Rolling Your Lower Back? STOP!

by Matt Weik

Many of you probably already know how useful a foam roller can be to help sore or tight muscles. That being said, there’s one area that I see some people foam rolling that should be avoided at all costs—the lower back.

What’s Foam Rolling?

The technique of foam rolling is used to help release tight muscles and aid in the recovery process. It also helps improve blood flow to enhance tissue health. The more scientific term for foam rolling is self-myofascial release, but it’s simply a way to massage your body without the need for another person. This can be done with things such as a foam roller or a lacrosse ball. Through the use of a foam roller, you’re able to hit specific points of the body that are causing you discomfort such as sore muscles or “knots.”

What many people fail to realize is that foam rolling is not what many would consider to be “comfortable.” There is a degree of pain involved with myofascial release. I would not describe it as intense pain, but it will cause you to wince a little bit if you hit a really tight spot in the tissue or an actual knot in the muscle. You simply need to keep rolling on the spot to help loosen up the muscle or help release the knot to achieve relief. When all said and done, you will feel a noticeable difference. If for some reason the pain when foam rolling is unbearable, discontinue use as you might have an injury that needs to be seen by a doctor.

Lower Back Pain

When it comes to the lower back, this area seems like a common place for people to mention pain. However, not everyone can pinpoint where this pain is coming from or even how to correct it. Most believe it’s due to the muscles in the lower back either being sore or strained from overuse or injuries (and sometimes even everyday activities like bending over from the hips rather than from the legs). The pain can be anywhere from dull to down-right debilitating. However, the answer is not a foam roller. In fact, using a foam roller directly on the lower back can further damage the muscle or spine if that’s where the pain is stemming from.

Unlike other areas of the body, the lower back (specifically the lumbar vertebrae) is completely susceptible to injury from a foam roller due to the position it puts your spine into. When you look at the upper back, this yields the perfect stable foundation due to the amount of muscle surrounding the area and the spine. You have the lats as well as the ribcage and bones like your scapula protecting the spine from injury when foam rolling. Down at the lumbar section of your back, you have very little protection making it a very unstable platform—not to mention the curvature of the lumbar section of the back makes it difficult to roll effectively anyway.

Because the lumbar has a backwards curvature, the body’s natural defense when foam rolling your lower back is to tense all of the muscles of the core to protect the lower back. This involves the engagement of the abs and core which never allows the muscles of the lower back to fully relax—deeming it worthless (as well as dangerous) to foam roll the area.

How to Cure Lower Back Pain?

In order to fix the issue, you need to figure out the root cause of the pain or discomfort. Is it a posture issue that’s causing the pain in your lower back? Simple fix for that is to pay closer attention to your posture when standing and sitting. You could even have your posture checked the next time you’re at the doctor’s office to ensure you don’t have a condition like scoliosis, kyphosis, or hyperlordosis where you have an irregular curvature of the spine. You might also want to take a look at how you sleep at night and in what position you lay. Depending on your type of mattress, it could be putting your lower back in a compromised position causing the noticeable pain while you’re awake.

Another area that you should look at where you CAN use a foam roller would be your hamstrings. Many people aren’t aware that if your lower back it tight, it could be due to your hamstrings being tight since they tie in together at the pelvis. When the hamstrings are tight and it pulls on your pelvis, the pelvis itself can shift slightly, causing it to pull on your lower back muscles. Stretching out and foam rolling your hamstrings would be a great first place the troubleshoot if you have good posture.

Unfortunately, there are some cases where your disc(s) could be herniated or bulging and can cause a pinched nerve, or that the disc itself could be degenerating. If any of these issues are the case, surgery might be the only way to relieve your pain. Some doctors might prescribe medication to deal with the pain if it’s not severe, while others might recommend physical therapy. But, again, if all these treatments fail to help with the pain, going under the knife could be the only way correct the issue. This can be an expensive and painful process between the surgery itself and the potential physical therapy needed afterwards to get your mobility and flexibility back.