I’m stressed. The end of my semesters — as a student and as a teacher — are rapidly approaching, but they’re both still in “fuck! it’s all due now!” phase and have not yet entered the “so close I can taste it euphoria.” Term papers taste like fishy sand.
I’m cranky. See “stressed” above. Plus the MenstroMonster is rooming with me for the foreseeable future, my pelvis feels like it’s on fire and about to explode, and part of me sort of wishes it would.
So I am hunched, spine rounded, over my desk and keyboard, neck jutting forward to glare at the monitor. Given the subject matter, I am acutely aware of how this is impacting my erector spinae.
The erector spinae — look at that seamless writing transition! — are a group of muscles and ligaments that run roughly vertically from the lumbar spine up to the neck. In MS Paint Anatomy, those muscles look like this:
The muscle right next to the spine on either side is called spinalis. (It, like all the muscles in the erector spinae group, consists of 3 vertical parts as well: cervical, when talking about the part along the neck and shoulder area; thoracic, when talking about the upper and mid back; and lumborum, when referring to the low back.) Next to that is the longissimus, the “meatiest” muscle in this group; it’s about a half inch to either side of the spine and may feel like rope or sinew. To the side of that is the iliocostalis muscle, which originates both on the sacrum (spine) and iliac crest (top of the pelvic/hip bone).
As a group, the erector spinae have two main functions: Working bilaterally, they extend the spine — entering a backbend or returning to neutral from a forward bend. Working single-sidedly, they laterally flex the spine to that side. The more lateral muscles — longissimus and iliocostalis — are active to some degree in spinal twisting, depending on the depth of the twist.
In a fair portion of contemporary industrialized societies, where the expectation is to be bent (forward) over something for much of the day, there is a tendency for the erector spinae to be overstretched and insufficiently strong. This can lead to a few issues, the first being an over-rounded thoracic spine and tighter (but not necessarily stronger) muscles across the front of the body. (Remember when we talked about the implications — physical and societal — of tight abs? This is that.) In addition to issues of muscle weakness putting stress on other muscles, bones, and connective tissue, imbalance in the longissimus and iliocostalis can result in low back and butt/hip pain.
Fair warning: The low back/hip/pelvic region is complex, and not all pain felt in that location is caused by the erector spinae — or by any skeletal muscles at all — necessarily. Simply put, there is all kinds of shit happening there and it is impossible to determine — particularly as a non-healthcare-professional over the Internet — what is causing any given individual’s shit. (And indeed, I spent 14 years in diagnosis for my Shit Down There.) However, for folks without contraindications and who practice asana mindfully, it’s unlikely that working to strengthen the erector spinae will do harm and quite possible that it will do tangible good.