Here’s the short version:
Low back muscles (and the thoracolumbar fascia) generally take care of themselves when you take care of whatever it is that is causing them distress. What is causing them distress is typically something in the leg fascia (brought on by sports, lifestyle and habits). Occasionally there is a shoulder dysfunction that can cause low back issues but most of the time it’s in the legs. The point though, is that THE PROBLEM IS NOT THE BACK ITSELF, and going into the low back with a foam roller can make things a lot worse.
In addition, there are a lot of nerves in the low back region and not a lot of “meat” (generally) to absorb your weight (look at the picture over there), so you could cause nerve irritation or damage; and I DO NOT recommend rolling over your lower rib area or spine for ANY reason either.
Basically – there isn’t much reason to foam roll here AT ALL, and if you are in pain there is significant risk of causing more distress or more pain.
The long version:
This is the story of how I came to these conclusions.
When I first started working with people in pain (by “stepping on” them; I am NOT a massage therapist, so if you’re curious about exactly what I do you can click the link) I knew that when it came to back pain the cause was something in the legs. I never touched people’s backs.
One of my favorite things in the whole world is solving puzzles. When I first got started, every client that came to me was like a new puzzle to solve because I hadn’t yet figured out all the various types and causes of low back pain. (These days I’m rarely stumped, but happy when I am because it means I get to learn something new and help even more people!)
Over the course of several years (from 2008-2013) I gathered a lot of data that led me to the pain patterns I’ve discovered (what causes what), and nearly all of my low back pain clients were getting complete relief (often in ONE session!) but a question remained in my mind:
What about the back itself?
The reason I wanted to do this experiment was because nearly every client would ask me “what about my back? You’re not even going to go there? But it feels so TIGHT!”
And my response was always “your back isn’t the problem, it’s the thing trying to get your attention that something is wrong but the problem is elsewhere.” I knew this with my brain, but I didn’t yet know it with my feet, with experience, with data that could back up my words with absolute conviction.
So I started experimenting: by going into these areas with permission from every client and full disclosure that I didn’t know what would happen and maybe their pain would get worse (but if it did I was confident we could get them back to pain-free, and we always did).
I wanted the data – are the low back or glutes actually tight when people feel like they are? Does it help if we go there, or does it make things worse?
I came to the conclusion (based on probably a thousand or more sessions with people who have low back pain) that it’s rarely a good idea to release the low back, and a very good idea to never go into the glutes when someone is in an acute flare-up of low back pain (it’s ok to go to the glutes later, and it’s always good data, but I saw enough clients get worse from going there in a first session while I was in my experimentation phase that I stopped doing that and made it a rule).
In almost all cases where my clients felt relief from going into the low back, there was a subsequent re-tightening and/or more back pain later – within a few days or a week. Whereas consistent work releasing the legs and addressing all of the fascial imbalances left to right nearly always gave the desired result: no back pain AND no feeling of tightness in the low back (proven physically with palpation, compression and movement testing of the low back muscles and fascia).
Meaning: nearly everyone’s low back muscles and fascia chilled out in 1-6 sessions without touching the low back, whether the low back muscles at first tested as actually tight or in a “clamped down” state OR physically did not present as tight but “felt” tight to the client. (FYI: while it is mostly the legs causing low back pain, I have often needed to go into the lattisimus dorsi or address a shoulder imbalance to completely eliminate the pain).
Now I can say unequivocally and with absolute certainty that (almost) no one needs to go into their low back to get relief from low back pain (of all kinds).
I say “almost no one” because there is the rare exception, maybe one person every year, who actually has some major tightness in their low back that could benefit from directly being released, and because I always want to keep an open mind. When the low back DOES need help relaxing I go there absolutely last.
And of course there are the rare exceptions where I tried everything and couldn’t get a client complete relief for low back pain. These cases are extremely rare for me (maybe 10 cases out of hundreds over the last 8 years).
Why would someone’s back FEEL tight, but not actually BE tight?
And why does the pain so often get worse after we release that area?
Please be aware that a lot of this is my own personal and professional opinion based on 8 years of “citizen science”, and I haven’t looked into whether or not my theories are supported by medically funded scientific research.
Here is my theory:
Our body and brain want a neutral, healthy spine and central nervous system. I believe most of our back muscles (and the fascia within them) are programmed to respond to peripheral stimuli much more so than internal (their own). The spine (and back muscles) need to be responsive, because this is the pathway of the central and peripheral nervous system, the communication highway of the body. Absolutely everything that happens in the human body is processed by the central nervous systems. And our pelvis is the center point of all movement.
I don’t think we are meant to build up the muscles around our spine to an extreme – they will respond to our movements (whether lifestyle or workout styles) and begin adapting on their own. They will become stronger, or not, as necessary – UNLESS or until a major imbalance is detected and the central nervous system is in danger of disruption or dysfunction.
Everything the legs do is felt in the back. I challenge you to isolate a single lower body movement that isn’t felt in the low back. Even wiggling your toes creates an obvious chain reaction through the spinal chord (isn’t this simple movement used by doctors post surgery to test function?!) It’s definitely possibly to move upper body parts without as much response in the low back (there is still some).
The fascia in your legs needs to stay relatively balanced left to right and front to back, or it will begin tugging at your pelvis and spine in various ways. I’m confident that our brains do an excellent job of regulating all of this before something serious has to get our attention (in the form of pain).
One of the ways it may regulate this is to send a signal to one or more low back muscles, a glute muscle, the TFL or hamstring, telling it/them to clamp down (neurologically) to prevent a teeter-totter type shift, tilt or rotation of the pelvis.
This is the main reason why someone’s back can FEEL tight, but isn’t – it is something that normally has a lot of ‘give’, space and ability to be responsive, but is getting pulled taught OR more commonly it is being forced into a ‘crunched’ position by peripheral forces (the leg fascia and/or lats). Most ‘tightness’ that is there is neurological (I believe), which is very different than tightness caused by overuse. It is NOT the back itself that is the cause of tightness, it is the thing doing the pulling (the legs).
When there is actual tightness in the low back muscles in the presence of low back pain, I believe it is usually because they have been recruited by the brain to counteract what is happening in the leg fascia. And they DO NOT want to relax until all is well with the pelvis. And…
This is why back pain happens:
The muscles that get recruited to fight the pelvic imbalances are pretty small (which is why the brain often recruits more than one). It will be the QL’s (quadtratus lumborum), a glute muscle (usually medius or piriformis), the TFL (tensor fasciae latae) and sometimes a hamstring (when your brain tries to recruit the big guns).
Eventually the small muscles fighting this unwinnable battle must get our attention that something is really wrong or the next phase could be actual damage to your spine, and THAT is what your brain has been trying so hard to avoid.
The pain signal you get when you experience low back pain is your body’s cry for help.
Any attempts to relax the low back, TFL, or glute muscles without FIRST finding the cause in the legs and releasing those areas will likely only lead to more clamping down, more tight sensation in the low back (because your brain is trying to limit your movements until you fix the problem) or more pain.
If you DO go into the low back without first addressing the legs, the back might relax for a little while but the pain may come back, and may come back with a vengeance.
And this is why I never ever recommend foam rolling the low back!
I had no intention of writing all of this, but it didn’t feel right to simply leave it at “don’t do it” without telling you why, and giving you the scientific thinking behind it.
What to do instead of foam rolling the low back?
Any guesses? Surely you know by now…
Find the cause in your legs and release those areas!
You’ll want to look for an imbalance left to right, and go after whichever leg is tighter. If you release both legs equally, you may be “looser” overall, but you’re still out of balance! And your pelvis needs you to set things right by balancing your leg fascia out.
My TOP PICK is to look at your quads and hip flexors.
Click here for the quad and hip flexor technique.
If you want to keep investigating, I would get into your adductors next. Click here for that.
Then I might try the IT Band. Click here for the IT Band post.
Keep in mind with this IT Band post, it was one of the first on this site so the format is a bit different (I’ll be re-doing it at some point but it’s certainly still relevant). There are two videos. I suggest you watch both so you can find out why I do NOT recommend actually ROLLING on your IT Band, and it’ll show you what to do instead (in the second video).
And finally, you could see if one hamstring is tighter and release that.
I do not yet have a video for addressing the TFL. It is coming! And that is something that may need attention AFTER all of the above get addressed.