Got back problems you can’t quite trace down? Have pains in the butt that you haven’t been able to figure out? Problems in your sacroiliac joint might be the culprit.
Although your SI joint only provides a few degrees of mobility, dysfunctions in this mobility causes chronic pain in many folks. But knowledge is power, so let’s shed a light on how this joint works, then I’ll teach you some SI joint stretches for proper motion.
Uncovering the SI Joint
Your SI, or sacroiliac joint is located where your sacrum (the flat, triangular bone at the base of your spine) connects to your ilium, a pelvic bone. You have two SI joints, one on either side of your sacrum.
This may not be a joint that you think about all that often…
You probably worry about your knee or shoulder joints a little more frequently, and that makes sense. These joints are more visible and apparent to us.
But even though your SI joint might be tucked away, it plays a key role in how we function. And when it fails to function properly, it can cause big problems.
In fact, some studies have estimated as many as 15% of people could have issues at the joint that lead to symptoms like low back and butt pain .
Side note – don’t automatically jump to muscle relaxers when back pain strikes. Instead, figure out what’s causing it and go from there.
With that in mind, let’s learn more about how the SI joint can cause back issues…
Why Your SI Joint Hurts
First of all, your SI joint plays a key weight-bearing role: it’s responsible for transferring most of your upper body weight down to your lower body.
That’s a pretty important job.
You can also think of your SI joint as being the “platform” where three main levers in your body act – your spine and each of your legs .
With all this weight and motion, the joint is prone to a couple of different issues that can cause you pain.
For one, inflammation in the SI joint, called sacroiliitis, can happen in either one or both of the joints.
This pesky problem can lead to pain down the posterior of your lower body – anywhere from your low back, all the way down your legs .
Another factor that can contribute to SI joint pain is pregnancy. During pregnancy, your SI joints have to stretch to allow for childbirth.
What’s more, the change in gait and weight that comes with carrying a child around for 9 months can contribute to wear and tear on these joints .
But if you’re a dude or a non-pregnant woman, no need to worry about that.
This may be one reason that SI joint issues are more common among women  – but they can affect anybody.
Perhaps the most common SI issue, and maybe something you’ve experienced, is the feeling of being “locked” in your SI joint.
This sensation can be quite uncomfortable, and again lead to pain in your lower back, pelvis, and buttocks regions, and pain that radiates down your legs.
To understand why you might feel this joint get locked up, let’s learn a bit about how the joint moves.
SI Joint Motion
When most of us think of a joint, we tend to picture a hinge joint – like the one formed by your radius, ulna, and humerus to form the elbow – or maybe a ball and socket joint – like where your femur joins with your pelvis at the hip.
But the SI joint is a gliding joint – one where the surfaces of the sacrum and ilium slide past each other during movement.
Not that the movement here is big. In fact, the joint may only move a few degrees .
But, maintaining this mobility is crucial to ensuring all the weight bearing down on your SI joints is properly transferred down to your legs as you shift your weight and move around in space .
The key to proper motion of your SI joint are movements called nutation and counternutation.
If your right side is in nutation, the right side of your sacrum will shift slightly in the anterior and inferior direction, while your right ilium shifts slightly toward the posterior and inferior. The right side of your ilium will also rotate a bit toward the center .
Meanwhile, counternutation happens on your left. The left side of your sacrum shifts in the posterior and superior direction, while your left ilium shifts toward the anterior and superior while rotating slightly outward.
Usually, these movements counteract each other – when your left SI joint is in nutation, your right side is in counternutation.
This provides balance as the body shifts to bear your weight as you do things like walk around.
But when your SI joint is “stuck,” this reciprocal motion does not happen.
This lack of proper give and take puts more stress on the lumbar spine, often leading to those symptoms of back pain we discussed earlier.
How Instability Can Lead to Getting “Stuck”
The way we develop tightness and that stuck feeling in the SI joint might be surprising.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, a lack of mobility (hypomobility) is often caused by some initial hypermobility, or excessive mobility and instability.
How can that be?
Well you see, as the bones of your SI joint shift over each other through the years, the repetitive movements may form grooves and ridges on the surfaces of your sacrum and ilium .
But, hypermobility in the surrounding ligaments can open up the normal gliding pattern, and allow your bones to move out of alignment.
When there is enough space, your bones can actually move away from their normal, custom-fit grooves, and get wedged into a new position that doesn’t quite fit.
It’s when this happens that your SI joint can become “locked.”
Too much freedom of movement has allowed your bones to get into a position that isn’t quite right, hindering their normal motion and leading to hypomobility and that uncomfortable stuck feeling.
To help picture it, you can imagine going cross-country skiing.
Even if it’s an icy day, it’s easy to go along on pre-made tracks, gliding pretty effortlessly.
But as soon as you hit a pile of branches and your skis get knocked out of those grooves, you are kind of stuck …until you can awkwardly shuffle those skis back in line.
So how do you get your SI joint back in line? (They’ll be no awkward shuffling required, I promise!)
“Techniques” – Not Stretches
Knowing that hypermobility can actually be behind SI joint pain, it’s easy to see why a simple stretch might not be the answer.
Static stretching could further the instability in the joint, which might lead to misalignment of the sacroiliac grooves.
Instead of static stretching, we will focus on moves that unlock the SI joint via a dual path of stabilization and strengthening.
So instead of stretches, let’s call these moves “techniques.”
Their goal is not to loosen you up.
Their goal is to unstick a stuck SI joint by strengthening and lengthening surrounding muscles and ligaments, and by reprogramming your neuromuscular system to accept a normal range of motion.
3 SI Joint Techniques
A few months back my wife complained of some SI joint pain, describing it as feeling “locked”…
She’s pretty aware of her body and the fact that she’s a physio helps her communicate these issues, so I quickly verified her complaint and then my biomechanic brain took over and came up with a couple of techniques that she should try, including the first two that we’re going to go through here.
While these techniques are designed to improve SI joint mobility, they can also be used to stabilize the SI joint, but only when done properly.
I say it in the video, but I’m going to say it here again – you must ensure proper muscular activation during the moves and not just passive mobilizing, otherwise, you may make an already loose SI joint looser, which will result in reflexive tightening of the muscles.
With that in mind, let’s go through the 3 techniques to ensure proper movement of your SI joint:
Technique #1: Supine SI Cycling Mob – 10 reps per
- Lie down on your back with your spine in neutral
- Stretch your right leg out, but keep it hovering off the ground
- Extend your left leg straight up towards the ceiling
- In a cycle-like motion, you’ll start to bend both knees and bring the legs in
- Your legs will come together with bent knees for a moment, as you continue moving to swap the position of your legs
- Your right leg will now be pointing up towards the ceiling and your left leg will now be hovering off the floor
- This is one rep – keep moving back and forth for 10 reps
Technique #2: Hinged Alternating Flexion/Extension – 2 sets x 6 reps
- Start standing up straight, then hinge at the hips to bend over
- Allow your spine to stay neutral as you straighten your left knee and allow your right knee to bend
- Pause for a breath before alternating sides – straighten your right knee and let your left leg bend
- Complete 2 sets of 6 reps of this technique
Technique #3: Asymmetric Hip Hinge – 2 sets x 6 reps per
- Come to an asymmetric stance, with your left foot in front of your right
- Your feet should be just about a foot apart – not too deep of a lunge – and keep your stance about shoulder-width
- Hinge over, keeping your right knee straight – this works to lock your pelvis on the right side
- Start to alternate between flexing and extending the left knee
- Repeat 6 times, then switch legs and do the same. Do 2 complete sets!
To be effective in supporting your SI joint, these 3 techniques must be treated as activation/strengthening exercises for the hip and knee muscles.
So remember to pay attention and make sure your muscles are contracting – just poke ‘em to feel they’re on.
And these 3 techniques are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to getting your hips to function properly to allow you to proper movement in all lower body exercises and the flexibility you need to train and play.