Article for the ORVIS Fly Fishing Podcast

Article for the ORVIS Fly Fishing Podcast

Lower back stiffness & gallery walking on the river plus what to do about it.

Hi there Tom,

Thanks for the Podcast, I’ve learned so much from it over the years – usually while driving over to my main fishing haunt.

I tend to listen as-and-when and usually search the archives for a topic relevant to the approach I’m planning on utilising that day or the conditions I’m facing that time of year.

As such I’m not certain how current I am with the up to date podcasts but I have noted that the last few I have listened to there has been some talk from the listeners about lower back pain and stiffness while out on the river.

There has been some perfectly acceptable advice offered by listeners and nothing that I would actively disagree with. I just thought I would throw my 2 pence (cents) worth in!

There’s good and bad news!

The bad news is that very generally speaking and without offering definitive over the phone proxy diagnosis almost everyone is describing symptoms associated with lumbar facet joint osteoarthritis.


That is degenerative change in the smaller joints associated to each vertebrae.

The good news is that for most of us, myself included at 35 years of age, this is pretty normal. If like me you have had past trauma to the lower back it may be more of a prominent issue but for most of us this would be considered normal wear and tear. 

“As we get older and our lumbar disks dehydrate and get damaged by other lifestyle practices like sitting at a desk or doing a driving job etc… and the spaces between each vertebrae get smaller”

Facet joint wear & tear

As each vertebral body gets closer to the next the facet joints at the back also get closer together and begin taking extra loading. After a period of time this extra loading creates the wear and tear we are concerned with here.

Inflammation and occasional painful flare ups known as facet joint syndrome can ensue that can be more painful than even a disk issue and really quite disabling. Thankfully flare ups should be intermittent events. 

On the river what we are feeling is those overloaded facets becoming inflamed and aggravated by what we call the GALLERY WALKING effect. 


Gallery walking on the river

When we walk and move about normally the spinal joints can experience as close as possible to full 3 dimensional movement. Compressive and decompressive forces alternate and ‘pump’ the disks and all joints, promoting healthy joint fluid production and flushing out stagnant inflammatory biproducts as the muscles contract and relax alternately (known as the skeletal muscle pump).

In contrast, the kind of slow, static, long-time-on-your-feet, shuffling about that you might find yourself doing whilst visiting a museum or art gallery, fly fishing or dare I say it clothes shopping with your wife, effectively turns the lumbar spine and pelvic complex into a pestle and mortar.

ALL OF THE LOADING – NON OF THE PUMPING. Very little by way of alternating compressive-decompressive forces or full healthy joint movement. 


Sitting can gap lumbar facets and can bring temporary relief on the river

How to manage low back ache on and off the river

Sadly fly fishing is a perfect storm for this. Especially when you throw a pair of wading boots and a strong current to resist with constant static muscle contraction into the equation. High sticking may be a particular irritant.

Yep, I hate to say it, but for all the standing desk advocates out there it goes like this:
LONG SITTING = knackered disks
LONG STANDING = Knackered Facets!  

So what do we do about it? Firstly you build up a good relationship with a good appropriately qualified physical therapy practitioner who understands these issues and you get regular monthly maintenance. I cannot do without my treatment at 35 years of age so any older than this there’s no excuse!

Beyond this there’s plenty to do for yourself at home by way of strengthening and maintenance. I would start by looking at some gentle flow based Yoga but especially hit YouTube and take a look at Foundation Training (below) for a start. It’ll cost you nothing but may help significantly. I would also recommend, whether you are in the UK or the States, look up your nearest AiM practitioner by visiting the Anatomy In Motion website.

Take a break, remember to take in your surroundings and spin a yarn about the one that got away!

On the river it essentially comes down to taking a break. One listener recommended doing some forward bends and hamstring stretches. That’s fine but keep it brief. If the hamstrings are tight it is because the brain is necessarily asking them to be tight. They are trying to help mange the situation.

If you over stretch you could inhibit your brains main strategy for keeping your back safe. But its ok to take them into the point of stretch a few times so long as you back off each time rather than holding the stretch for long periods until you force the muscles into submission and discoordination.

The main thing that is happening here is you are flexing and gapping the lumbar facets by bending forward or bringing the knees to the chest.

This beneficial gapping can also happen to some extent if you just go take a seat on the river bank and rock the pelvis gently back and forth on the sit bones a few times preferably timed with the breath.

Hope this helps

Thanks Tom! Keep up the good work but don’t neglect the fishing…. tight lines! 

Worth the pain!

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