This article originally appeared in the Capital Bicycle Club Newsletter April 2014
April Chronic lower back pain is a common complaint among cyclists. I’ve written about it here before, and it remains a hot topic among cyclist who come to my office for treatment. Estimates are that more than 60% of cyclists will report having some lower back pain, and that the frequency of spine pain tends to increase along with the number of years in the sport. Many of us have already had to make changes to our bike set up related to these symptoms, including buying new stems, new handle bars, and even new bikes to help solve or lessen the impact of pain on our enjoyment. I recently found an article that I wanted to share because it deals with the direct role that posture on the bike, particularly flexing/rounding of the lumbar spine, plays in our experiencing pain while riding.
Researchers (Van Hoof, et al. Journal of Manual Therapy March 2012) placed strain gauges over the lumbar spine of cyclists to see what kind of posture and movement these cyclists had while riding on their own bicycles over a 2 hour ride. This is a somewhat unique approach to studying posture on the bicycle because it is a specific measurement of spinal movement during the activity. The sensors are dynamic and log all of the movements of the spine as it stretches forward and back while riding. The data is collected on a portable computerized device that can be downloaded for analysis after the ride. Riders were sent out on a prescribed ride where each cyclist could have an equivalent amount of riding stress. Pain levels were measured before and after the 2-hour ride.
The group size was small, with only 17 participants. The “pain” group consisted of 8 cyclists with chronic lower back pain, and the “pain-free” group consisted of 9 cyclists who were matched in age and sex who did not have chronic lower back pain. Even with the small size of the study, however, the back pain group was found to assumed a posture on the bicycle that was significantly more flexed (rounded) at the lower back compared to the pain-free group.
The authors of this study described this posture as a poor motor control pattern for cycling and part of the cause of their lower back pain. In other words, the pain-free riders were able to control the stress of cycling better than the group that couldn’t. Their conclusion… rehabilitation and prevention strategies to address improved control of lumbar flexion while on the bicycle.
As simple as it may sound, there’s no getting around a lower back that isn’t sturdy enough to keep you from slouching your lower back while you are riding your bicycle. Below is one of my favorite exercises to give cyclists who are experiencing lower back pain related to their riding. The trick is learning to use those new-found muscles to support your spine on the bicycle, but the more you practice this and learn to control your lower back movements, the easier that should be.