Butt gripping is a common unconscious habit that may be at the root of low back, SI joint and hip pain.
Do you have chronic low back or hip pain? If you are female, did you notice that you developed your back pain during pregnancy or after giving birth? Maybe a fall or car accident triggered the back pain and now it is ongoing? Whatever the initial cause it may be worth checking yourself to see if you are a butt gripper. Butt gripping is a term coined by Diane Lee and Linda Joy Lee, used to describe a back stabilization strategy that involves squeezing the buttocks together. This habit is completely unconscious, and is a common strategy the brain uses to try and stabilize the spine if the muscles that are supposed to do the job are not functioning as they should, or if there are significant digestive issues that may be causing gas. Butt grippers are easy to recognize in other people – not only do they look like they are squeezing their butt cheeks together, but they also frequently walk like a duck with the toes pointing out.
Sometimes it is more challenging to recognize the habit in oneself. If you are not sure, have a friend help you. Lie on the floor on your back, completely relaxing your leg and buttock, and have your friend pick your leg up and hold it bent to 90 degrees, at the knee and at the ankle. Your friend can then try and move your upper leg side to side. It should swing completely freely with no movement in the pelvis at all if you are not butt gripping. If the leg moves stiffly as if one were churning butter, or if the pelvis moves with the leg, that means the buttocks are hanging onto the leg and you are indeed a butt gripper. Check both legs, because occasionally the problem can be one-sided.
Why would this habit increase low back and hip pain? Try squeezing your butt cheeks together hard, and walk across the room. Notice how your legs cannot swing freely, and how you need to rotate your spine in order to move a leg forward. This puts extra wear and tear on the vertebral joints – not good. Contracting the piriformis, a deep rotator muscle in the buttock that runs from the sacrum (triangular bone at the bottom of the spine) to the big bump on the outside of the upper leg bone (greater trochanter), puts a strangle hold on the bottom of the sacroiliac joint, compressing it and creating pain. Furthermore, because the sacrum is a triangular bone and butt gripping squeezes the bottom part of the joint, the top of the SI joint opens up making it unstable. And with the sciatic nerve being so close to the piriformis muscle in the buttock, occasionally overuse of this muscle will create sciatic pain.
Although not in the right place to mimic piriformis properly, the bungee cord in the photo simulates a butt gripping strategy, and one can clearly see how this opens the top of the SI joint. This might also destabilize the joint between the top of the sacrum and the lowest vertebrae, and possibly the lumbar spine further up. Also, the piriformis might pull the front of the lower sacrum forward, unlocking the SI joint, destabilizing it. Massaging the external hip rotator muscles will help temporarily, but until one stops using a butt gripping strategy the pain will not go away permanently.
In order to stop butt gripping permanently, one must replace the butt-gripping stabilization strategy with one that is more optimal. Ideally we want to create a ring of support around the top of the pelvis by using the deepest abdominal muscle called the transversus abdominis. Notice in this photo how the bungee cord simulating the action of transversus abdominis, closes the SI joint, and how using this muscle would stabilize the pelvis in a way that does not compromise the ability of the legs to move freely. This muscle, along with co-contraction of multifidus and the pelvic floor form the optimal way to stabilize the low back and SI joint.
Find transversus abdominis by getting onto all 4s, letting your belly hang out, pulling in the tissue just above the pubic bone, feeling a slight muscle contraction there, and holding it while breathing. The contraction should be well below the belly button. Drawing the navel to the spine activates the wrong muscle according to Real Time Ultrasound research, and therefore does not provide the needed stabilization to the spine. One should be able to hold this deep, low contraction and breathe quite easily. Once you can find this abdominal muscle, lean back so your butt cheeks open. Then try finding your connection to transversus in various positions including sitting and standing. Transversus should be on at very low intensities pretty much all the time, so build up hold times rather than contracting and relaxing it.
Frequently practice finding transversus abdominis in standing, and then practice letting go of your buttocks so your legs can swing freely. Teaching your brain to use your body differently can take a few weeks to a few months of diligent practice, so be patient. Best practice for a minute 6 times an hour rather than an hour a day, so set a timer to beep at you every 10 minutes. Over time as your brain learns a new way of stabilizing your back and pelvis your pain may very well dissipate. This is tricky stuff, so do find a good physio or CHEK practitioner to help ensure you are doing this correctly.
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Lee, Diane The Pelvic Girdle Churchill Livingston, 2004.
Lee, Diane and Lee, Linda JoyAn Integrated Approach to the Assessment and Treatment of the Lumbopelvic-Hip Region DVD, 2004
Lee, Diane and Lee, Linda Joy Postpartum Health for Moms – An Educational Package for Restoring Form and Function after Pregnancy
CD ROM 2006.
Lee, Diane Assessment Articular Function of the Sacroilac Joint VHS
Lee, Diane Exercises for the Unstable Pelvis VHS
Richardson, C, Hodges P, Hides J.Therapeutic Exercise for Lumbopelvic Stabilization: A Motor Control Approach for the Treatment and Prevention of Low Back Pain Churchill Livingston 2004.
DonTigny, Richard Pelvic Dynamics and the subluxation of the sacral axis at S3 The DonTigny Method.
Myers, Thomas Body Cubed, A Therapist’s Anatomy Reader “Poise: Psoas-Piriformis Balance” Massage Magazine, March/April 1998.
Myers, Thomas Body Cubed, A Therapist’s Anatomy Reader “Fans of the Hip Joint” Massage Magazine, Jan/Feb 1998.
Myers, Thomas Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists Churchill Livingston, 2001
Chek, Paul CHEK Level 1 Advanced Back Training Chek Institute.
The Multifidus Back Pain Solution: Simple Exercises That Target the Muscles That Count New Harbinger Publications Inc. Oakland CA, 2002.
Lee, Diane Understanding your back pain – an excellent article explaining the concept of tensegrity and its importance in stabilizing the pelvis and spine.
DeRosa, C. Functional Anatomy of the Lumbar Spine and Sacroiliac Joint 4th Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back & Pelvic Pain, Montreal, 2001.
Gracovetsky, S. Analysis and Interpretation of Gait in relation to lumbo pelvic function 4th Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back & Pelvic Pain, Montreal, 2001.
Dananberg H. Gait style and its relevance in the management of chronic lower back pain 4th Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back & Pelvic Pain, Montreal, 2001.
Online at www.kalindra.com A fantastic website devoted to sacroiliac dysfunction.
Copyright 2010 Vreni Gurd
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