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  • Nicolas Pahud

Lower Back Pain Doesn't Have to Keep you From Riding

Updated: May 5, 2022

It’s an uncomfortable truth that low back pain is common among cyclists. Cycling is widely practised as a mode of transportation, a leisurely pursuit, and a competitive sport. Surprisingly, approximately half of cyclists experience low back pain. But are cyclists really more prone to back issues than people who do other sports and activities? And if so, is it caused directly by our position on the bike, being bent over to varying degrees, or other less obvious factors. There has been limited studies of spine tissue adaptations due to cycling but a recent research has indicated that:

  1. Cyclist Lumbar Discs were better hydrated and thicker than non cyclists (no sport).

  2. Cyclists had larger psoas, quadratus lumborum and erector spinae muscles than non cyclists.

Cycling is a low-impact sport and is often recommended for back pain sufferers and this new information appears to refute the hypothesis that high volume cycling is potentially harmful to the spinal muscles or discs. So why is lower-back pain so common among cyclists who spend long hours in the saddle?

Well, some research has shown evidence of muscle fatigue resulting from prolonged

static positions. The sustained strain on the low back muscles while cycling for an extended period of time can exceed the muscles capacity and may play a role in the production of pain. In one study, electromyography demonstrated that when cyclists pedalled to exhaustion, their hamstrings and calf muscles became progressively more fatigued. This fatigue of the muscles of the posterior chain seemed to produce undesirable changes in the muscle movement patterns of the lower extremity, which also then affected the muscle of the back. Specifically, the degree to which the cyclists were bent forward in the lumbar region. Essentially, the more tired these cyclists became in their legs, the worse their spinal posture became on the bike, possibly increasing the risk of low back strain or pain.

Another study looked at the effects of holding a static bent-forward (flexion) position on the back extensor muscles that help maintain correct posture and stability in the lower back while cycling. It found that after prolonged periods of static flexion these muscles became less effective at generating the forces required to maintain a proper bike posture.

In summary, despite previous studies reporting higher than average prevalence of back pain in cyclists, the high-volume road cyclists showed no anatomical abnormality or functional deficiency in spinal structures. By contrast, the evidence indicates beneficial adaptations to the intervertebral discs and low back spinal muscles. Low back pain in cyclists may be as a result of other extenuating factors such as muscle capacity, rest periods between rides or cycling position.

For that reason if you are experiencing any low back pain come in to see us at Shift Physiotherapy & Wellness to determine the potential cause of your back pain and ensure you get back on the bike as quickly as possible.

Check out a couple of these great pictures of Kristen, our physiotherapist in Edmonton crushing some local single track. **Bonus points to those who can name the trail in the second photo.


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