Back Pain: Signs and Symptoms of the Iliopsoas Muscle

By David Kent , LMT, NCTMB

Back Pain: Signs and Symptoms of the Iliopsoas Muscle

By David Kent , LMT, NCTMB

Patients come to you concerned about their back pain, looking for answers and relief. The pain started when they tried to get out of bed or reached for the keys that fell onto the floor. Your ability to quickly assess your patient's symptoms and communicate your objective findings can determine if they schedule additional appointments, upgrade services or a treatment package, refer others and in some cases the amount of your tip. (Read "Practice Building: Getting Inside Your Patient's Head" MT, January 2011). The iliopsoas muscle can refer pain into the back that ranges from a mild ache to a severe debilitating level of intense pain. We will explore the signs and symptoms that indicate involvement of the iliopsoas muscle and ways to communicate your findings.


Patients will report pain and difficulty when attempting to stand erect after extended periods of hip flexion after driving or reading, seated at a desk or computer, sleeping in a hip flexed or side lying fetal position. The iliopsaos is the primary flexor of the thigh. So pain is often experienced from the iliopsoas when the patient contracts the muscle to perform hip flexion or a sit up movement when rising from a lying position.

Now, lets look at the function of this muscle from another perspective. When the thigh is in a fixed position, as when weight bearing, the iliopsoas acts as a trunk flexor. This is easily spotted during your postural and gait analysis. Postural analysis photos make it easy to document and educate patients of a shortened iliospoas muscle that is causing them to stand in a hip flexed position, bearing weight on the uninvolved side, while keeping the knee bent on the painful shorten side to shorten and reduce tension on the iliospoas (Image 1). The iliopsoas plays an import roll in maintaining upright posture when standing by preventing hyperextension of the hip joint. (Read "Getting Comfortable With Postural Analysis" MT, July 2008)

The iliopsoas is also active during gait. When the iliopsoas is shortened, patients will walk with a stooped posture, tilting their pelvis forward creating a hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine and limping when bearing weight on the involved side.


Proximally, the psoas major muscle attaches to the 12th thoracic and to all of the lumbar vertebral bodies and the corresponding intervertebral discs and the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae. The iliacus attaches proximally to iliac fossa, the sacrum and the anterior sacroiliac ligaments. Distally, the two tendons merge forming the iliopsoas tendon to attach onto the lesser trochanter of the femur. (Image 2)


One simple way to check the length of the iliopsoas is to have the patient sit on the edge to the therapy table, extending the hip of the iliopsoas being assessed, while flexing the opposite hip, bring the opposite knee and thight toward the chest to flatten the back, stabilize the pelvis and avoid creating a hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine. Using a photo, it is easy show the right iliopsoas length appears normal and how the shortened left hamstrings are limiting range of motion, preventing the left knee and thigh from moving closer to the chest. (Image 3)

Trigger Points

Myofascial trigger points in the psoas muscle refer pain along the spine ipsilaterally from the lower thoracic to the sacral and upper gluteal regions. (Image 4) Patients will point moving their hand up and down or encircle one side of their back, near the spine. When trigger points are referring from both iliospoas muscles, patients will point moving their hand side to side. Iliacus produces the same back pain as psoas and referrers to the anterior thigh and groin.

While trigger points can arise in the iliopsoas from acute overload, they are usually associated with trigger points in other muscles. It will be important to assess and treat the lumbar paraspinal muscles, quadratus lumborum, tensor faciae latae, pectineus, rectus femoris, rectus abdominus (Read "Back Pain Caused by Rectus Abdominis Trigger Points" MT, June 2009), and the contralateral iliospoas muscle.


While it is easy to identify involvement of the iliopsoas, it is necessary to ruled out any precautions and or contraindications prior to performing any stretching or manual therapy. The iliopsoas is clinically important in relation to the kidneys, ureters, pancreas, appendix, sigmoid colon, lumbar lymph nodes and nerves. A clear understanding of the anatomy and proper hands-on training is necessary prior to treating this muscle. Many patients find yoga be a great way to provide self care for the iliopsoas muscle while lengthening and strengthening their entire body.

The treatment of back pain is common and hopefully easier now that you know many of the signs and symptoms of the iliopsoas muscle. Here are a few other articles I encourage you to read "Iliosacral Pain You Can't Touch" (MT, April 2011), "Back Pain: Often a Pain in the Gluteus Medius" (MT, March 2009), and "Pseudo-Sciatica and Gluteus Minimus Trigger Points" (MT, May 2011).