Have you ever had pain in your lower back? 8 out of 10 of you that just read that question said yes. Chances are that’s the reason why you are reading this article.
Pain anywhere in your body is unfortunate, but there is something about that lingering constant ache in your lower back that can be almost debilitating at times. Sitting too long hurts, standing too long hurts, and even lying down doesn’t provide any relief.
To function, you end up taking painkillers. You don’t want to have to take them, but it feels like it’s the only option to get through the day.
But what about something as simple as massage balls for back pain? Can they provide more relief than old faithful acetaminophen?
Well I am here to tell you that they definitely can, when used properly of course. If you have back pain that’s caused by a stiff or sore muscle, then using a massage ball, or set of massage balls, can provide relief faster than popping two extra strength Tylenol.
I have seen this work for many of my clients over the last twelve years of personal training, as well as myself. Allow me to explain.
On and off since I was in my late teens, I’ve had bouts of lower back pain. The first real incident was when I was seventeen looking for a summer job. I found a job on a farm where I was told I had to make room for cabbages to grow. This involved being bent forward and pulling up the cabbages that were too close together. I was informed I would be paid ten bucks for every row I completed. Pretty good I thought. Remember that ten bucks a row by the way.
I walked around back of the building to find rows of cabbages that stretched to the horizon…
Okay maybe not to the horizon, but they were long! Probably as long as the average golfer can drive a golf ball, with the wind at their back..
I felt a little defeated when I first saw these ten dollar rows (again, remember that ten bucks a row I was promised), but I was young and wanted some money, so I went to work.
To make an already too long of a story short, when payday came around on Friday, I had managed to complete five rows in four days (I started on a Tuesday). I was ready to receive my fifty bucks in cash when the Farmer said:
“That’s five rows, at seven bucks a row, for a total of $35.00.”
SEVEN bucks a row!! I nearly fell to my knees.
Even the sheep couldn’t believe it…
A pointless argument ensued on my part, but to no avail. I took my $35.00 in cash and my Dad brought me home. I hope that Farmer lays awake at night, thinking about that $15.00 dollars he took from a teenager.
After those four days of being slumped over a field of cabbages I noticed a nagging ache on the right side of my lower back. It went on for about a week, so my Mom suggested I see her Chiropractor, which seemed to help.
Ever since that first experience almost twenty years ago, I have had occasional spurts of lower back pain. Not that I’m blaming it!
The longest stint of back pain I experienced was for about nine months in 2014. After months of not listening to my body (the opposite of what I told clients… *cough* hypocrite..) I finally took a step back from heavy strength training. By focusing on lots of soft tissue work, mobility and stability exercises, and postural awareness, it finally cleared up right before I turned 30. Who says we have more pain as we get older!
I rarely experience any significant amount of lower back now, and I attribute much of the absence to consistently performing soft tissue work with a foam roller and massage balls.
We have already talked about foam rolling in a few other posts, but if you are unfamiliar and want to read more, then check out this post about how to use a foam roller.
How Do Massage Balls Work?
They work in the same way a massage therapist works. By applying specific pressure to a trigger point in a muscle, after some time, the trigger point will start to ‘release’ or ‘let go’ and you will feel the muscular pain subsiding a little.
Now I should be clear, a good Massage Therapist will be more accurate and skilled at finding and treating trigger points, but for the price of a set of massage balls, they aren’t a bad second place at all!
Doing this once or twice a day over a period of about five days to a week can really help alleviate the sore muscles that could be contributing to your back pain. In conjunction with postural awareness and core/strength training, you can significantly reduce your incidences of lower back pain. I should be clear I am referring to acute episodes of back pain.
For chronic back pain sufferers, it can be a different ball game. I have worked with several chronic back pain clients over the last twelve years, and they all found some benefit from the strategies I have discussed. The most important thing for people with chronic lower back pain to remember is that you need to be very consistent with your recovery strategies, similar to someone trying to lose weight. This goes a little beyond what this article is about, but I will be discussing this in future posts.
Back to the massage balls. It takes a bit of practice and wiggling around to find the sore spots, or trigger points, but once you find them, you know where they are for next time.
We are going to show you some of the more common areas you are likely to find trigger points and sore spots in when you have lower back pain.
Before we do that, however, let me quickly go over what to look for in a massage ball. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but there are a few key things.
What Should I Look For?
As you can see from the picture below, these are the massage balls Shelley and I use:
Now I will tell you that any standard massage ball will do, but I do recommend two things:
- They are made of a firm rubber
- They are on a rope
The firm rubber is so the ball will stay in place as you work on the intended area. The rope is so you can use the balls against a wall if you find the floor puts too much pressure on your ultra tender muscles on and around your lower back (more on this in the next section).
Having the ball attached to a rope makes it a little more convenient, and if it does happen to slip out of position, it won’t fall to the floor. Now you have to bend down, with a sore back, and pick it up. It also makes for a nice weapon if Goliath ever shows up in your home….
Also, if you are overweight, or elderly and find getting up and down off the floor difficult, then a wall will work better for you as well.
One small note: It may leave some marks on your wall, so do it somewhere that your significant other won’t get upset with you for leaving massage ball marks on the wall. Sorry Shelley….
Okay let’s get into how to use these massage balls to get the most benefit from them.
Look Above and Below the Pain
Without getting into too much detail as to anatomy and biomechanics behind this theory, for the intention of this article, you need to understand that if you have pain somewhere in your body, you should look above and below the affected area for issues (for more on this, check out our post about proper warm-up before strength training).
Sometimes where you have your pain, isn’t where the key problem is, it’s just a symptom. The area where you feel the pain is like the fire, but the problem is coming from the pyro holding the gas can, or in this case, another muscle above or below your lower back.
All muscle in our body can cause what is known as referral pain. A referral pain, or referral pattern is pain felt on or around a trigger point (or knot) in a muscle that is being targeted with soft tissue work (i.e., a massage ball/foam roller).
Some muscles have very targeted referral patterns of pain (the referral pattern stays close to the muscle), and in others, like the glutes as have referral patterns of pain that can travel quite a distance.
Does this make sense to you? I think it will as you read on.
For our purposes where are talking about the lower back. So I am going to ask you to try working with your massage balls on areas above and below your lower back:
- Mid-Back Spinal Erectors
- Quadratus Lumborum (QL for short)
- Lateral Hips (TFL)
Let’s get started!
Above: Mid-Back Spinal erectors
Take a look at where we will be positioning the massage ball. As you can see from the referral pattern of the mid-back spinal erectors, they can refer pain right down to the back of your pelvis:
Video: Mid-Back Spinal Erectors with Massage Ball on Floor
Video: Mid-Back Spinal Erectors with Massage Ball Against Wall
Above: Quadratus Lumborum (QL for short)
The QL muscle is technically positioned right on the lower back itself, but we have listed it above as the position of the ball sometimes is almost towards the mid-back. Have a look at it’s referral pain pattern:
Video: QL with Massage Ball on Floor
Video: QL with Massage Ball Against Wall
Below: Glutes – Lower Back Pain is a Pain in the Butt… Literally!
A special note on your glutes. Have a quick look of their anatomical position on the skeleton. Do you notice they insert all the way up at the crest of your pelvis?
Stand up and grab that area on your left or right side (or both) where you experience your lower back pain. You might actually have your hand on the top portion of your glutes. Maybe your lower back pain has actually been a pain in your Butt all along… Literally!
To hit your glutes with the massage ball properly, you need to be aware of three things, or should I say three muscles:
- Gluteus Maximus
- Gluteus Medius
- Gluteus Minimus
Aside from sounding like the names of Roman Gladiators, they can often play a big role in lower back pain. This is because, among other reasons, of the referral pain they can cause.
Have a look at the referral patterns of the three muscles (listed above) that make up the Glutes. You can see how trigger points or knots in these muscles could very well feel like lower back pain. And if you take a closer look at the referral patterns for the glute minimus muscle, you could very well see how Sciatica could be miss-diagnosed.
Video: Glutes with Massage Ball on Floor
Video: Glutes with Massage Ball Against Wall
Below: Lateral Hips – TFL (Tensor Fasciae Latae)
The TFL is a small muscle that can be hard to hit with a foam roller sometimes, until you become a little more skilled at moving around on it. I like this muscle because it sounds like a drink at Starbucks.
It doesn’t directly cause lower back pain like the rest of the muscles listed in this article, but when it gets tight, it can affect your ability to use your glutes properly, which in turn, can cause lower back pain. Here’s where it is and the referral pain it can cause:
Video: TFL with Massage Ball on Floor
Video: TFL with Massage Ball Against Wall
Where Can I Get One?
There are many places to find a massage ball. You could even make your own with a lacrosse ball and a long sock (a clean sock please).
If you would prefer to actually purchase one, Amazon is a simple choice as always. They are under $10.00 (USD) before shipping. 10 Bucks!!
For the cost, plus the associated benefit you get from learning to use this little piece of soft tissue work equipment, it’s a win-win.
And it’s not just for lower back pain. You can use it on the bottom of your feet, calves, upper back, shoulder girdle and neck. We will cover all these in future posts.
For now, if you decide to get one to help with your lower back pain, you will be glad you did!
All the best,