The Amazing Psoas Muscle…

The Amazing Psoas Muscle: How It Relates to Low Back, Hip and Sciatic Pain. 

Prior to becoming a mother, I used to have a lot of fun dancing salsa. When my daughter was about 3 or 4 my was-band, Chad, gave me a Christmas gift of salsa lessons for the two of us. As luck would have it, shortly thereafter, we had the opportunity to dance salsa to a live band. I figured 1 & ½  hours of dancing would be okay since my prior dance adventures averaged about 5 hours. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

The next morning I could barely get myself out of bed. Standing up or sitting down was so painful it was scary to contemplate. The first thing Chad says to me: “we should check your psoas”. My response: “it’s not my psoas, it’s gotta be something worse than that!”. But of course, with the gentlest palpation the psoas was obviously the cause of pain. This came as a complete surprise to me because I was (supposedly) an expert on the subject of the psoas: it had been my favorite muscle for at least a decade & a half at this point. There is nothing like severe pain to teach a person the REAL story.

Fortunately, my mis-adventure with the psoas was short lived. Daily acupuncture combined with therapeutic hot stone massage got me free of pain in a matter of days. But it did change my whole perspective on this amazing muscle and expanded my repertoire for healing techniques.

Clinically what I see most often as a causative factor for psoas problems is stress, not injury. This is probably because the psoas is connected to our limbic system, also known as the reptilian brain. This is the part of our brain that is directly connected to the nervous system so that we can get out of danger quicker than processing through our relatively slow cerebral cortex. A good example of this is moving a hand off a hot stove. Another example might possibly be running from predators, back in the days when such things applied. We no longer have saber- tooth tigers, etc., but we do have financial pressures or challenging relationships or any number of modern “saber -tooths”.

To get a better understanding about how the psoas is connected to the limbic system we have to look at its structure. The psoas is physically connected to the diaphragm, so breath is integral to its function. The psoas is also attached to all of the lumbar vertebrae and to the entire inner lining of the ilium (hip bone) and finally ends on the inner upper thigh. This makes it very stable, plus a very important muscle for running and jumping, especially up hill. As a re-cap: it is a huge muscle that is located exactly in the middle of the body, from any direction of view, and connects the upper body to the lower body. The psoas is perfectly designed to get us out of danger quickly: breath, stability, stamina, legs plus back connection.

Because of the location and stabilizing function of the psoas, when it contracts, a lot of other muscles become affected. Clinically, the muscle I see most commonly affected is the piriformis, which is located deep in the hip. The piriformis pulls on the sacral iliac joint which causes the hips to be out of alignment and thereby mimicking sciatica.

Okay, if any of the above info seems related to your back or hip pain what can you do to assist the healing? One of the best things you can do is a body meditation with focus on the psoas. Lie down on your back with your legs propped up under several pillows or in the fetal position on your side with pillows assisting proper alignment. Imagine your psoas. When you get a good picture, ask it if there is any communication that would be good to share with you. It may not say anything, but just start hurting. That is actually just fine; it means that the stress of the day is being released instead of being added to the muscle’s storage. All muscles have this function, but the psoas is more pronounced due to its limbic system connection. If the original contraction happened in a car accident, then just getting in a car can trigger it. When a baby is held by its feet and slapped, the muscle that attempts to get baby back in the safe fetal position is the psoas. Future “slaps” from behind can create psoas contraction as a coping strategy. So checking in with this muscle can be very powerful in helping it feel good again.

Other modalities that are useful are acupuncture and gentle massage: pain during session should never go past a 5 on a 1 to 10 scale. The psoas fights back by getting tighter if treated too aggressively. In the category of massage, I find therapeutic hot stone to be very helpful as the heat relaxes the muscle so that the therapist is able to go much deeper in a session without causing pain.

Standing Qi Kung is also another helpful tool. Check out Chad’s class as he incorporates this technique in his classes. This is a good addition for the long term picture in prevention of future difficulties with the psoas.

Things to avoid when the psoas is healing: stairs, “crunches” or abdominal work (as these utilize psoas), walking up hill, riding bike up hill, any kind of jumping or kicking.


1. daily meditation for the psoas at end of day (at least 10 minutes, or until pain lets up)

2. acupuncture

3. gentle massage

4. avoid hills & ab work

5. be gentle & go at the speed your body desires, in terms of healing this truly amazing  muscle.

– Leslie Moyer