Detailed, evidence-based help for common painful problems

Massage Therapy for Low Back Pain

Perfect Spot No. 2, in the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum muscles in the thoracolumbar corner

PAGE INFO updated  by Paul Ingraham
Word count: 1,800
Reading time: 8 minutes
Published: 2005

Footnotes: 9
Citations: ~7
Trigger points (TrPs), or muscle “knots,” are a common cause of stubborn & strange aches & pains, and yet they are under-diagnosed. The 14 Perfect Spots (jump to list below) are trigger points that are common & yet fairly easy to self-treat with massage — the most satisfying & useful places to apply pressure to muscle. For tough cases, see the advanced trigger point therapy guide.

People usually don’t know about this spot … until it gets massaged, and then it’s like scratching an itch they didn’t even know they had. Even when they have low back pain caused or complicated by soreness in this patch of muscle, most people think it seems “too high” to be involved. But trigger points here are common,1 and often refer pain downwards, fooling us into thinking our low back pain is lower than it is.

This Perfect Spot lives in the “thoracolumbar corner,” a nook between your lowest rib and your spine — right where the stability of the rib cage and thoracic vertebrae gives way to the relative instability of the lumbar spine. It consists of trigger points in the upper-central corner of the quadratus (square) lumborum muscle and in the thick column of muscle that braces the spine, the erector spinae.

Technically, these are quite different muscles, but trigger points in either of them usually feel like the same spot — Perfect Spot No. 2.

The anatomy and function of quadratus lumborum and erector spinae

The quadratus lumborum — “QL” for short — is an interesting flat sheet of a muscle, spanning the space between the ribs and the hips. Conventionally, the QL is thought to be a spine-mover, but its probably not much of a spinal muscle, and “its actual role in spinal biomechanics has still to be determined.”2

QL is more likely to mainly be a respiratory muscle; it controls breathing mechanics by pulling down on the 12th rib bottom of the rib cage. Some people with back pain also experience discomfort when breathing. One possible cause of this is a crampy QL, which is pulling down on the lower rib like an action hero clinging to the landing skid of a helicopter.3

The QL may also echo the function of the tough but “forgotten” lumbocostal ligament, which fills the corner between the spine and the 12th rib like a cobweb.4 This ligament tightens when the ribs go up and relaxes when they go down. It limits rib elevation passively, while the QL does it actively. Very respiratory!

But the QL has other jobs: it is active during many actions and activities, some of them counter-intuitive and quite interesting,5 and is an active stabilizer of the spine, a “core strength” muscle, most active in a side plank.6

The erector spina muscle group is an impressive collection of several of layers of muscles, like a thick braid of rope running along the side of the spine. It is primarily responsible for postural stabilization and extension and sidebending of the spine, but these muscle also have some involvement in breathing.7

Every segment of this muscle group from skull to sacrum has the potential to be someone’s Perfect Spot … but there are often significant trigger points at the joint of T12 and L1, right in that thoracolumbar corner, and especially in people with back pain.

How does Perfect Spot No. 2 feel?

Sensation in this area can feel hot and burning if the trigger points are severe, and they can also feel breathtaking — which can be a more “threatening” sensation — so please use caution. However, in the majority of people, a blunted or more gentle pressure will still produce the signature sensation of a Perfect Spot: a deep, sickly “sweet” ache.

How do you find and treat Perfect Spot No. 2?

You can’t easily treat this spot on yourself unless you are unusually flexible or have the right kind of tool … but it’s easy to find on someone else. Simply locate the bottom rib, and then work your way inwards towards the spine. When you hit a thick bundle of muscle beside the spine, you’ve arrived: there is a bit of a natural corner there between a “roof” of rib and a “wall” of spinal muscle.

This area is usually so densely populated with significant trigger points that pressure nearly anywhere is going to feel worthwhile. But keep exploring for the perfect spot. Using thumbs or fingertips if it’s not too sharp, or an elbow or the heel of the hand for a blunter pressure, slowly push into that pocket, and press inwards and upwards. Keep trying different angles and you are likely to find something more attention-grabbing.

A tennis ball for self-treatment — so good for so many other self-massage jobs — is usually just a little too large and blunt to work here. (It might work on XXL patients.) You could start with a tennis ball just to be more cautious, and it might be satisfying on the side of the paraspinals, which is part of the goal. But to really get a little deeper into that “corner pocket,” you need something a little smaller and more accurate, like a lacrosse ball.

The vulnerability of the thoracolumbar junction

The vertebrae in this area are big, and so are the muscles flanking them. The thoracic spine and rib cage form a heavy and relatively inflexible structure that perches on top of a much narrower and more limber lumbar spine.8 It’s heavily braced by a lot of hard-working muscle tissue.

The 12th thoracic vertebrae often suffers crush and “burst” fractures. The spot is vulnerable because T12 is the lowest of the non-huge vertebrae, making it a weak link in that chain.9 The area is probably often subjected to forces that aren’t severe enough to break anything, but are enough to fatigue and irritate tissues. This may be why trigger points often form here.

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter.

Related Reading

Appendix A: Is trigger point therapy too good to be true?

Trigger point therapy isn’t too good to be true: it’s just ordinary good. It can probably relieve some pain cheaply and safely in many cases. Good bang for buck, and little risk. In the world of pain treatments, that’s a good mix.

But pain is difficult and complex, no treatment is perfect, and there is legitimate controversy about the science of trigger points. Their nature remains somewhat puzzling, and the classic image of a tightly “contracted patch” of muscle tissue may well be wrong. What we do know is that people hurt, and it can often be helped.

The Perfect Spots are based on a decade of my own clinical experience as a massage therapist, and years of extensive science journalism on the topic. Want to know more? This is the tip of the iceberg. I’ve written a whole book about it

Picture of the cover of my ebook, Save Yourself from Trigger Points and Myofascial Pain Syndrome.

Not too good to be true.

Just ordinary good. Trigger point therapy isn’t a miracle cure, but it is a valuable life skill. Practically anyone can benefit at least a little & many will experience significant relief from stubborn aches & pains. The first few sections are free.

Appendix B: All the perfect spots

There’s also a more detailed index of the spots and other trigger point resources.

  1. Massage Therapy for Tension Headaches — Perfect Spot No. 1, in the suboccipital muscles of the neck, under the back of the skull.
  2. Spot No. 2 is this page.
  3. Massage Therapy for Shin Splints — Perfect Spot No. 3, in the tibialis anterior muscle of the shin
  4. Massage Therapy for Neck Pain, Chest Pain, Arm Pain, and Upper Back Pain — Perfect Spot No. 4, an area of common trigger points in the odd scalene muscle group in the neck
  5. Massage Therapy for Tennis Elbow and Wrist Pain — Perfect Spot No. 5, in the common extensor tendon of the forearm
  6. Massage Therapy for Back Pain, Hip Pain, and Sciatica — Perfect Spot No. 6, an area of common trigger points in the gluteus medius and minimus muscles of the hip
  7. Massage Therapy for Bruxism, Jaw Clenching, and TMJ Syndrome — Perfect Spot No. 7, the masseter muscle of the jaw
  8. Massage Therapy for Your Quads — Perfect Spot No. 8, another one for runners, the distal vastus lateralis of the quadriceps group
  9. Massage Therapy for Your Pectorals — Perfect Spot No. 9, in the pectoralis major muscle of the chest
  10. Massage Therapy for Tired Feet (and Plantar Fasciitis!) — Perfect Spot No. 10, in the arch muscles of the foot
  11. Massage Therapy for Upper Back Pain — Perfect Area No. 11, the erector spinae muscle group of the upper back
  12. Massage Therapy for Low Back Pain (So Low That It’s Not In the Back) — Perfect Spot No. 12, a common (almost universal) trigger point in the superolateral origin of the gluteus maximus muscle
  13. Massage Therapy for Low Back Pain (Again) — Perfect Spot No. 13, The Most Classic Low Back Pain Trigger Point
  14. Massage Therapy for Shoulder Pain — Perfect Spot No. 14, The Most Predictable Unsuspected Cause of Shoulder Pain

What’s new in this article?

2017 — Added a lot of substance to the anatomy and function section, supported by several new references.

2016 — Many miscellaneous improvements.

2005 — Publication.

Notes

  1. Takla MK, Razek NM, Kattabei O, El-Lythy MA. A comparison between different modes of real-time sonoelastography in visualizing myofascial trigger points in low back muscles. J Man Manip Ther. 2016 Dec;24(5):253–263. PubMed #27956818 ❐ PainSci #53723 ❐
  2. Phillips S, Mercer S, Bogduk N. Anatomy and biomechanics of quadratus lumborum. Proc Inst Mech Eng H. 2008 Feb;222(2):151–9. PubMed #18441751 ❐ “The magnitudes of the compression forces exerted by quadratus lumborum on the lumbar spine, the extensor moment, and the lateral bending moment, were each no greater than 10 per cent of those exerted by erector spinae and multifidus. These data indicate that quadratus lumborum has no more than a modest action on the lumbar spine, in quantitative terms.”
  3. If the muscle is full of trigger points, it may painfully resist elevation of the rib cage during inhalation and/or hurt when contracting to pull it down during exhalation. There are several other possible muscular causes of respiratory pain or shortness of breath: see When To Worry About Shortness of Breath … and When Not To.
  4. Saker E, Tardieu GG, Alonso F, et al. The Forgotten Lumbocostal Ligament: Anatomical Study with Application to Thoracolumbar Surgery. Cureus. 2016 Dec;8(12):e925. PubMed #28090418 ❐ PainSci #53722 ❐
  5. For instance, the quadratus lumborum and lateral erector spinae “wake up” exactly when the rest of the spinal muscles go to “sleep” at the end of a forward bend, a nifty little trick called the “flexion-relaxation phenomenon” (Andersson et al identified the QL activation; see Descarreaux et al for more about the FRP). This actually suggests a good way of checking to see if spot #2 is actually the issue: do a standing forward bend (toe touch). If your low back increases noticeably near the end of it, when the QL and lateral erector spinae are activating … bingo.
  6. McGill S, Juker D, Kropf P. Quantitative intramuscular myoelectric activity of quadratus lumborum during a wide variety of tasks. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1996 Apr;11(3):170–172. PubMed #11415616 ❐ “Electromyographic evidence, together with architectural features make the quadratus lumborum a better stabilizer of the spine than psoas. Use of horizontal 'side support' exercise to train this muscle would appear to be a wise choice.”
  7. Most of the erector spinae muscles jump from vetebrae to vertebrae, some of the lateral ones — the iliocostalis muscles specifically — span from vetebrae to ribs. They are not generally considered respiratory muscles, because they do not strongly move the ribs: their attachment points are too close to the spine. Nevertheless, when sore and tired, pressure on them clearly seems breathtaking to many patients.
  8. This is an usual arrangement in nature (few larger animals have a mainly vertical spine). Just because humans have spent a couple million years erect doesn't mean that we are perfectly adapted to it in every way. What it means is that, in the merciless math of natural selection, the benefits of bipedality outweigh whatever problems it causes us. Evolution is chock-a-block with such trade-offs.
  9. The L1 breaks less, because it is more massive. T12 breaks instead because, as the lowest of the thoracics, it carries the most weight.