Tight muscles can mimic SI joint dysfunction

Now that my SI joints themselves are actually staying stable (thank God!) I can begin to identify other factors that may have been contributing to my pain, and causing my sense of being off-kilter, all along.

What I’m referring to specifically in this post is tightness in the muscles of the lower back.   When these muscles are tight they can pull on the spine and pelvis unevenly.  In my experience, this can lead to a general feeling of being “off-balance,” or that your pelvis is rotated.

Physical therapists generally call this type of thing “muscle imbalance.”  It can happen anywhere in the body, not just the low back.  It basically just means that your muscles aren’t functioning optimally.  Some are doing way more than their fair share of work and pulling too much; others are underactive, and not completely doing the job they were meant to do.

There were many times, over the years, when I went to see my chiropractor and he told me that muscle tightness causing some of my discomfort.  I would feel as though my pelvis and spine were “twisted.”  Sometimes it would feel like one side of my pelvis was up higher than the other, or that one side was more “forward” than the other.

I couldn’t really tell what he was talking about at the time, however, because all I could think about was my SI joints, and how desperate I was to be able to move my legs normally again.  There wasn’t really any way for me to separate out different aspects of the problem– it was all just one big giant mess to me, and all I knew for sure was that I felt better when I walked out of his office.  (Temporarily better, anyway–chiropractic adjustments ultimately turned out to cause more problems than they were worth, for me).

Five years later, I’m in a completely different place mentally and physically.  The two aspects of my learning went hand in hand.  The more I learned in my physical therapy prerequisite classes, the more I understood.  And then the more knowledge I had to apply to my own research of the SI joint.  This, in turn, helped me to develop more targeted exercises and build muscle strength (with the help of a great physical therapist, of course– thank you, Paula!).

Now I can tell you that my SI joints are staying stable, but sometimes I do have muscle tightness that causes me to have a “rotated” sensation through my pelvis.

The biggest difference, though, is that when this rotated feeling is caused by muscle tightness, nothing is “stuck.”  I can still move my legs freely, unlike when the problem is coming from the SI joint.  I still feel off-kilter, but at least I can walk.

And because in the case of muscle imbalance because nothing is “stuck” like the SI joint, the problem is much easier to reverse.  I usually find that when muscle tightness causes this rotated feeling, it’s just because I’ve tired out the muscles in my lower back doing one thing or another.  (They’re still pretty weak from being underused for the past five years, so it doesn’t take too much to aggravate them).

However, now, if I just give things a few days to calm down, usually that “rotated” feeling improves.

One of the best things I can do for this muscle tightness as well is going to the pool and doing exercises where my legs are hanging beneath me.  The exercise itself is great for increasing circulation through tight muscles and flushing out the toxins and other junk that can accumulate during muscle spasms, and when you let your legs “hang,” it allows gravity to create a little bit of space between all of your joints.

As my physical therapist Paula explained to me, all healthy joints have a little bit of space between bones, but in cases of dysfunction, sometimes that space can be compressed.  When you let your legs “hang” it opens a little bit of space back up in joints that may have been feeling cramped.  (In terms of low back pain, I’m referring to both the SI joints as well as the joints of the spine).

I find that “hanging” my legs in the pool can sometimes fix that feeling of pelvic rotation pretty quickly (at least, when it’s caused by muscle imbalance).

If you’re curious what I’m referring to what I mean letting your legs hang, you can check out the following video, which shows a physical therapy patient using flotation devices to support her upper body while letting her legs hang beneath her.  (The entire video is worth watching, but the specific part I’m referring to is at the 2:25 mark):

And in addition, if you’re interested in more detailed explanation of the benefits of working out in a pool, you can check out this post I wrote that covers more of the science.

Hope this was helpful!

2 thoughts on “Tight muscles can mimic SI joint dysfunction

  1. Gail Purcell says:

    Thanks so much for this post. My experience has been so similar! My physical therapist said that it is in response to pain. The body moves away from the painful area, compressing my right side and over stretching my left side so everything is twisted. My left hip raises up and pulls on my torn hamstring tendon. We still are keeping my aquatic therapy only in the shallow end; deep end work still sets up trigger points in my back and destabilizes my SI joints. My left locks up and my right rotates in.. Do you have any stretches to “untwist” yourself?


    • sunlight in winter says:

      Hi Gail, I can suggest a few things, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend trying anything without first running it by your PT (especially with that torn hamstring tendon!).

      In general I think it’s really important to keep the muscles of the lower back, and in the back of the SI joints (the “glutes”) loose. I have probably recommended this to you before, but I really think the single-leg knee to chest is the best: https://sijointsaga.com/2017/11/16/glute-stretch/

      I don’t recommend any specific stretches involving a twisting motion, which you may have been picturing, because I don’t think it’s ever a good idea it for the SI joints. (Even if you’re trying to twist yourself back in the opposite direction, it will probably just make things worse). You should be able to stretch all of the muscles you need to gently, keeping your pelvis and spine in neutral.

      This is also a post which shows a few stretches for the hamstrings– a few I like, and a few I don’t like. You’ll see that the ones I like involve keeping the pelvis and spine in a more neutral position, as well as your body weight symmetrically balanced between the two hips. https://sijointsaga.com/2017/11/10/hamstrings-stretches-sacroiliac/

      I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any more questions!


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