Stretching the low back

Feeling back stiffness may be all in the head, not in the back

Why do we feel back stiffness?

Bodily feelings are commonly thought to reflect the biologic state of our body tissues. A new research from the University of South Australia recently investigated the long-held question of what informs our subjective experiences of bodily state. The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

subjective versus objective back stiffnessThey propose a new hypothesis: feelings of back stiffness are a subjective protective construct of the mind, rather than reflecting objective biomechanical properties of the back. This idea has implications for treatment of pain/stiffness but also for our understanding of bodily feelings.

In an experiment, they recruited 15 people with chronic low back pain (LBP) who also reported having chronic feelings of back stiffness, and selected 15 age- and gender-matched healthy controls. The researchers compared the subjective stiffness rating with an objective stiffness measure using displacement over force. In another experiment, the participants were advised that they would receive indentation forces between 50 newtons and 70 newtons to their back; and were asked to estimate, as accurately as possible, the magnitude of force delivered

All experiments showed that subjectively feeling stiff does not relate to objective measures of back stiffness; and objective back stiffness does not differ between those who report feeling stiff and those who do not. Rather, those who report feeling stiff exhibit self-protective responses: they significantly overestimate force applied to their spine, yet are better at detecting changes in this force than those who do not report feeling stiff.

The authors also found that this subjective perceptual error can be manipulated: providing auditory input in synchrony to forces applied to the spine changes prediction accuracy in both groups, without altering actual stiffness, demonstrating that feeling stiff is a multisensory perceptual inference consistent with protection. Together, this presents a compelling argument against the prevailing view that feeling stiff is an accurate marker of the biomechanical characteristics of back flexibility.

Note: This research should not be interpreted to mean that stiffness in the back does not exist.

Rather, that the “feeling of stiffness” might be more related to the nervous system’s desire to protect a region of the body that it believes to be fragile or vulnerable.


This blog post article was reproduced with permission from Terra Rosa


(Note: Click here for an article on muscle spasming of the low back.)