little known muscle series – quadratus lumborum

Ah! Here’s a fascinating muscle. It’s wacky name is usually shortened to QL. And, crazy me – I’ve been thinking of it as a BACK muscle all along. Until I read this last night: “Although it would seem to be the deepest muscle of the low back, the quadratus lumborum is, strangely enough, the deepest muscle of the abdomen.” Trail Guide to the Body, Books of Discovery, 2005 (page 213). Okay, I know you’re all curious…so let’s jump right in.

Muscle mapquest: Put your hands on your hips. Where your thumbs naturally fall is one attachment of this muscle. As you’ll remember from geometry, a quadrangle is a 4-sided polygon. In this muscular quadrangle, 3 sides are attached to bones and 1 side is free. Hips anchor the muscle on the bottom. Going vertically, the muscle attaches to the 1st-4th vertebrae of the low back. On the top, it attaches to the lowest rib. If you’ve ever seen someone consciously or unconsciously rubbing their low back, this is basically the neighborhood we’re talking about.

What does it do? This muscle helps to extend the trunk (bend backward), laterally tilt the pelvis (think hula or Elvis), laterally flex the trunk (side bend). It also fixes the ribs for inhalation and forced exhalation. Ever sneezed in the morning before your back is “awake” and felt a twinge in the low back? That might be a slight strain on the QL.

Why should I care? Legitimate question. I’m glad you asked. This muscle is often implicated in low back pain. Low back pain is complex and can have many causes. Because the QL has the 3 attached sides, it acts as an important stabilizer muscle in the low back. The tighter it gets the more stable, or immobile, you can become. (Our goal should be stability without losing flexibility.) When the more superficial abdominal muscles are weak, this muscle tends to hold on even tighter. This can cause it to pull too hard on one of it’s attachments – the hip, the rib or the vertebrae. It can also be unevenly tight on one side causing an imbalance in the pelvis. One hip might be hiked up on one side causing trouble down the leg, into the knee, all the way to the ankle and foot. This might cause a lot of trouble if, for example, you’re a runner, especially at higher mileage.

Here’s another gem: if you’re a mom of young kids whom you carry, you could really benefit from learning about this muscle. Almost every mom I know juts a hip out to carry a kid, some more, some less often, but it’s pretty common. I always carried my son on my right hip. I guess it felt more stable on that side. I’m sure someone told me to be sure to carry the baby on both sides and to vary positions. But somehow, amidst all the advice I received, this piece did not make an impression on me. Consequently, I feel there’s still a deep-seated imbalance in the mobility of my hips. So, beware and be smarter!

How to care for your QL: A number of things come to mind. You know I’m going to say massage, so I’ll tackle that first. This is a muscle that’s easily worked in a massage session to great affect. Actually I have to laugh because when I’m working on the QL I often observe my client get very quiet as if concentrating. Then I hear “what is that?” It can be a hidden culprit to back discomfort, so be sure to ask for some work there in your next session. You can also massage it yourself if you stand with your back against a wall and position a tennis ball between you and the wall. Lean that low back into the ball with a degree of pressure that feels satisfying, but not painful. You can do this a 2-6 times a day as long as you don’t do it for very long (1 minute should be good). More than that and you’ll make yourself sore. Lastly, and most importantly, keep moving! We naturally lose our flexibility as we age. Unless we’re doing things to actively maintain or increase our flexibility, we will become stiff and immobile. This does not bode well for the QL. Do a little dancing: salsa, merengue, and hula come to mind. Simple side bend stretches are also great for the QL if you’re not on par with Oliver & Luda. Check this out ~