Quadratus Lumborum (QL) A real Pain in the Back!

By David Keil

I have written about a number of the “lightning rod” muscles such as the piriformis, psoas, and transverse abdominis. I refer to them as “lightning rods” because they attract attention. Sometimes this is for good reason, after all, everyone should know about his or her psoas. However, every problem related to core shouldn’t be thrown onto the back of the psoas or the transverse abdominis for that matter. Just like every pain in your butt is not the piriformis, every pain in your back is certainly not the quadratus lumborum.

The quadratus lumborum is often referred to as the QL. It is most commonly associated with pain in the back. After all, it makes sense because the QL is located in the lower part of your back on either side of your spine.

Anatomy of QL

Let’s start by talking about the anatomy of this muscle and what its functions are. As I mentioned, it’s located in the lower back. Specifically it is on either side of the lumbar spine between the lowest rib and the top of the pelvis. The technical attachments are the ql_bilat_yoga_anatomyIliac Crest, the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae 1 – 4, and the medial half of the 12th rib.

The muscle itself is relatively thin and sometimes has and additional layer of muscle to it. A google search of images  will show lots of variation.

When both sides of the muscle contract simultaneously, it causes the lumbar spine to go into extension. If one side contracts it either pulls the rib cage down to assist in lateral flexion (side bending) or it lifts one side of the pelvis up in what is known as hip-hiking.

Additionally, this muscle is also used in respiration to help stabilize or move the lowest rib. It works in conjunction with the psoas for creating an anterior pelvic tilt. And it helps stabilize the lumbar spine along with the transverse abdominis (they share fascial attachments) and function with other “core” muscles.

In Trouble

The QL usually gets blamed when there is back pain. It’s totally possible that it is the culprit in cases of back pain. Of course, muscles tend to work together and interact dynamically with each other. Even if your QL is acting up, it’s very possible that it’s really telling you to look at an even larger problem. It may even be involved in the larger problem I wrote about “Gluteal and Psoas Relationship for Yogis.”

Perhaps the most common larger problem is that the erector spinae muscle is not working as hard as it needs to or is even over worked. If the erectors of the spine work overtime stabilizing the spine in say sitting at a desk, the muscles become dysfunctional over time and the QL has to pick up some of its slack.

ql_ilicost_lumb_yoga_anatomyIf it seems like the QL is acting up, I would always suggest looking at one particular muscle in the Erector Spinae group of muscles. I often find the most lateral muscle of this group, iliocostalis lumborum, is the one that gets mixed up with the QL the most. Not just functionally but literally. If someone were to put their finger on the edge of this muscle, they may very well assume that it is the QL that they are on. Its fibers lie on top of where the main part of the QL is. It is often not happy when people have overdone their backbending in the lower back.

It may also be worth having a look at the trigger points from the iliocostalis lumborum and those associated with the QL. Both of these muscles have trigger points that refer into the gluteal and piriformis region. This is a possible connection with the Gluteal and Psoas article previously mentioned.

Postures to Activate and Stretch it

All postures that cause us to have an extended and hyperextended spine will shorten the QL (and ilicostalis). Poses where we are in a prone position such as shalabasana are the clearest to activate the QL as well as the erector spinae group of muscles because we are working against gravity to create the hyperextension in our spine.

Posutres such as wheel can have the muscle shortened but in a different way. In backbends the arms and legs also generate forces that put us into a backbend. It’s not all created by the literal muscles that hyperextend the spine.

To stretch the QL forward bending can be one way of getting after it but it is more effective to do side bending. Parighasana comes to mind as the one of the most clear and consistent ways to stretch the QL. Having said that, alignment will matter in a posture like this to get as much of the QL as possible. I suggest that you play with the amount of twist that you do when turning your body sideways. You may find different angles get at it in more or less effective ways for you.

Other options are a simple head to knee posture with the knee taken back further than “normal” will bring about a nice stretch through these tissues. Triangle pose, depending on how you do may also do the trick. You’ll find that your obliques will also get a stretch in these postures, see if you can differentiate the sensations.

Is it Weak or Not?

It will often be suggested that a muscle is weak  when it acts up and causes pain and therefore needs to be strengthened. Remember, muscles can be weak because they are too tight. One way for this to happen is long sustained contractions that reduce the blood flow to the tissues. This is a very common scenario in a variety of muscles but especially here with the QL. Sitting for long periods of time without moving can reduce the flow of blood to this muscle and its neighbors.

When blood flow is reduced the muscle finds itself having a harder time accomplishing basic physiological functions including removing waste products that would naturally be removed with blood flow. In addition to this, oxygen is essential to tissues remaining healthy. With a lack of blood flow, there is less oxygenation to the muscles and a compounding effect to its dysfunction.

At this point the muscle gets tight and weak. In my view this is the wrong time to simply try and strengthen the muscle even though doing so should increase the amount of blood flow to it. Personally I lean toward stretching the tissue first for a period of time and then adding strengthening techniques  later.

Conclusion

I wanted to add on one more piece of the puzzle to the existing Gluteal Psoas article. In the past couple of months I’ve seen the pattern showing up on the mat again and again. I also found that parts of the QL and ilicostalis lumborum were sometimes part of the pattern I described in that article.

Patterns in this area of the body are complicated. I encourage you to do research in your body as well as seeking out someone who can more objectively help you understand your pattern more clearly.

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Author: David Keil

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Take a look at the Interview I did with David recently when he was at Purple Valley in Goa, India.
Here are some of the articles posted here by David Keil:
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  • Flexed or Extended Foot in Lotus March 30, 2013 By David Keil I’ve been hearing for years that we should flex our foot in various poses where we have our knees bent at ninety degrees or more. More recently I’ve received two seperate emails regarding the application of this technique to lotus posture. Should the foot be flexed or extended in padmasana? It’s time I ...
  • Sun Salutations Part 2 October 20, 2014 The last article in this series was the introduction to the sun salutations series with an anatomical spin. In this article we will be exploring: How to lift the arms over your head. Raising the Arms It seems as though I have seen hundreds of variations on how students raise their arms over their head to begin ...
  • The ‘Álmighty’ Psoas Muscle: Your Body’s Center of Movement March 24, 2013 By David Keil The foundation of our bodies and our yoga practice lies at our feet. In order to incorporate both physical and energetic foundations, we must examine our body’s center of energy, movement and balance which begins near the psoas muscle– the pair of deep muscles extending from the sides of the spine to the ...
  • Turning Your Feet Out When Doing a Yoga Drop-Back? September 9, 2013 By David Keil The inspiration for this month’s article comes from a question posed in an email. The question, from Catherine, asks specifically about keeping the feet straight in drop-backs. For those of you not sure what a drop-back is… it’s when you stand at the front of your mat and drop into a backbend. It’s ...
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3 Responses

  1. BodyInUnity says:

    thanks so much for all your helpful info. what a blessing!

  2. jodisargentJodi Sargent says:

    Standing Side cresent, (Start in tadasana, arms overhead, then sideways bend right and left) – is that another pose where the QL would be activated, like in parighasana?

  3. Ulric says:

    Play around with T Spine Lat FX To / Rot To and Lat FX Away / Rot for a host of eccentric QL loading options. A functional opposite to psoas, opposite obliques, abdominals and itself bilaterally; QL is a significant player in hip height and disorganized gait presentations.

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