In this post: If you suspect your quadratus lumborum muscle is causing your low back pain, here’s what you need to know in order to relieve the pain yourself.
Your back has been achy, but no big deal. Then, it happens–you bend down to tie your shoe and SNAP! Your back goes out.
Low back injuries can happen in a variety of ways and be caused by a number of muscles. However, one of the most common trouble makers is the quadratus lumborum muscle.
Whenever I’m trying to figure out which muscle is causing low back pain, I always like to imagine the lineup scene from the movie The Usual Suspects. Yes, there are about six or so muscles that could be to blame, but you keep coming back to the shifty-eyed one at the end.
In this case, that shifty-eyed muscle, the one that you think probably is to blame, is the quadratus lumborum. Often times, this muscle is one of the top trouble-causers but, keep in mind, it’s not your Keyser Soze. This muscle is very obvious about the mischief it makes.
But, sadly, achy muscles don’t disappear after a couple of hours like villains in movies. Instead, you have to do something about it to address that muscle’s needs then whip it into shape!
Here’s the low-down on everything you need to know about the quadratus lumborum muscle–where it is, what it does, what happens when it doesn’t work correctly, and how to fix it yourself.
Where Is the Quadratus Lumborum Muscle?
The quadratus lumborum originates on the iliac crest and the iliolumbar ligament. The iliolumbar ligament runs from the 5th lumbar vertebra out to the ilium.
The quadratus lumborum inserts on the 12th rib and on the transverse processes of the upper four lumbar vertebrae (L1-L4). The transverse processes are the spike-like portion of the bone that sticks off of the main body of the vertebra.
In plain English, it helps connect the spine to the pelvis.
What Does It Do?
The main function of the quadratus lumborum is to laterally flex the vertebral column. This means that when you bend straight over to the side, that’s the QL working. For example, if you were sitting in a chair and wanted to set something on the floor beside the chair, you would bend to the side to set the object down.
In that example, you are flexing your rib cage toward your hips. The QL works the opposite way, too. As the ribs move toward the hips, the hips may also move toward the ribs.
Think about when you’re carrying something on your hip (like groceries or a child), and it starts to slip. Automatically, the hip may jostle the object upward to restore balance. It’s the QL that helps with that movement.
In addition to lateral flexion, the quadratus lumborum helps extend the lumbar vertebrae and provide lateral stability. So, when you take a break and stretch backward, that’s the QL working.
Another function of the quadratus lumborum is that it stabilizes the 12th rib during deep respiration. This helps stabilize the diaphragm for singers exercising voice control.
What Happens When the QL Doesn’t Work?
Unfortunately, the quadratus lumborum can become injured simply by performing its standard actions. If you bend sideways incorrectly or lift from a sideways position too quickly, you can injure yourself.
In fact, it is incredibly common for people who do their heavy carrying on one side (be it groceries or kids), to injure this muscle. Then, when the quadratus lumborum muscle is injured, it will show up as low back pain.
And, although an injured QL can be the cause of back pain, it is frequently falsely blamed. Sometimes, the actual cause of pain can be neighboring muscles like the iliocostalis lumborum.
Or, the pain can be referred from a different area of the body entirely. Personally, I think the psoas, which is a neighbor to the QL, causes much of the dysfunction that leads to low back pain.
Whenever you are trying to decide what you can do to help yourself feel better, make sure to take the time to think through your situation. What were you doing when you noticed pain? Where, precisely, do you feel pain?
Making Your Quadratus Lumborum Muscle Feel Better
As always, I recommend that if you feel pain, you should first consult your physician. Your doctor can order imaging, medication, and therapy to appropriately and correctly treat your issue.
If your back pain is not very significant and you feel like you want to try some stretches and exercises at home, I have a couple of ideas. First, it’s important to know that tightness = weakness. So, when you’re deciding what you want to do to make your low back feel better, be aware that you will need to stretch and strengthen those muscles in order to feel improvement.
Make sure to be very careful as you practice these poses and exercises. If your QL is already cranky, just a tiny extra push could send it over the edge into a spasm.
Remember, you are working to stretch and strengthen the muscles in your low back that run between your ribs and hips. Take deep breaths into this area to help facilitate stretching. Engage your core and activate the QL to allow it to help you move back to your starting posture.
Because the primary purpose of the quadratus lumborum is lateral flexion, I recommend side-bending exercises. Notice how as you bend to the side, one side of the QL is stretching while the other side of the QL is strengthening.
Here are a few of my favorite side-bending poses and exercises:
Another way to strengthen the QL is through spinal extension. Here are my favorite extension exercises and poses:
- Cobra pose,
- Crocodile pose,
- Fish pose,
- Bridge pose,
- Breast stroke preps,
- Breast stroke,
- Double leg kick, and
Again, make sure to be mindful of what you are doing and why as you move to strengthen the QL.
Some of my favorite exercises to stretch the QL are:
Want to Learn More?
If you’re researching QL back pain today because you have some hip or back pain that you’re trying to get rid of, you’re in luck! I’ve created a course to teach you everything you need to know to permanently ditch hip and back pain. Click here to check out my Spinal Rejuvenation program.
Kenhub.com is a leader in human anatomy-related information. To learn more about the quadratus lumborum, click here.
To learn more about the quadratus lumborum and other muscles in your body, check out The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey. (When you buy this book through this link, I earn a small commission.)
Also, I consulted my Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. If you really enjoy anatomy and want a tool to help you locate specific muscles correctly, I highly recommend these flash cards. I turn to them any time a client comes in with pain. (Again, if you buy this item through this link, I earn a small commission.)
If you have hip or back pain that’s preventing you from living the life your dreams, I have great news for you–I have created a course to teach you how to permanently ditch your pain. Enrollment for Spinal Rejuvenation is currently open!
Have you ever had a quadratus lumborum injury? What did you do to make it feel better? Let us know in the comments below.