Spinal Twists & Discs

You are flat on your back on your exercise mat, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. You allow both knees to fall to one side and you work to turn your chest in the opposite direction. You feel a great stretch in your low-back. It is true that this position can do a good job at placing the muscles of the waist into a longer position. It places tension on stretch receptors in these muscles, and what you feel can drown-out or dampen sensations of tightness in the low-back. There are some good reasons however, why this may not be the best way to loosen-up your back. Stretches and certain exercises that involve twisting or rotating your spine on your hips can easily become too tough on certain structural components of the low-back. This is more of a concern if there is a history of low-back pain. The anatomy of the spine miraculously allows the back to be both a stiff and flexible column. Pliable cartilage structures called discs exist between each vertebra to allow motion of the spine and cushion shock. These discs are made-up of certain types of fibers that are arranged in a way that do a poor job of withstanding twisting forces. Dropping your knees off to the side, in the stretch described above, and placing a lot of effort into going further, and “feeling more” can get you into trouble. During a seated exercise that involves twisting, there may be more risk of damage because there is usually a tendency for people to slump, or round their spine forward while rotating. Discs in the low-back are in their weakest positions when the spine is rounded forward and being twisted. Painful low-back episodes can occur when disc fibers get torn or damaged. If you choose to do a spinal twist, my opinion is that for most people, it is important to be gentle or careful not to push too hard for more range-of-motion. Further, if you have a history of low back pain, you may want to avoid this type of exercise. Physical therapists can be helpful in providing you with safe alternatives for stretching, strengthening and staying out of pain.

Anna Kotula, DPT