Back pain is a common, yet at times, debilitating, problem.
It can seemingly come out of nowhere and make it difficult to do even simple tasks. But, you don’t have to let backaches put your life on hold. You may assume that a sore upper back, aching lower back or shooting nerve pain means you should stay in bed for a couple weeks. But, doctors say you can get back on your feet faster — and experience less intense episodes of back pain less often — if you stay active and regularly practice some simple exercises.
“All exercises that increase activity level and improve your overall fitness and health are good for your back,” explains Dr. Marlon Wong, a physical therapist with the University of Miami Health System who specializes in pain reduction. “There are many underlying causes for back pain, which are best addressed with different types of exercises. When choosing an exercise routine to target your back pain, you should also consider your body type and fitness level.”
Can exercise really alleviate back pain?
In order to stand up straight and make stable, fluid movements, many of your trunk (core) muscles have to coordinate. Back pain disrupts the coordination of these muscles, making you stiff and limiting your range of motion.
“Balancing exercises are good for restoring the coordination of the trunk muscles,” says Dr. Wong, “and gentle stretching can help keep your muscles and joints loose, reducing stiffness. Stretching exercises are particularly helpful during the recovery process.”
Can exercise prevent back pain?
While stretching regularly can’t effectively prevent back pain, having a strong trunk and hip muscles can protect you from back injuries.
“Incorporating strengthening activities into your workout routine will decrease your risk of back pain.” Once the pain is resolved, Dr. Wong advises patients to “spend more time and effort on strengthening and balancing exercises to help prevent future injuries.”
Which exercises help relieve back pain?
When you sit or stand for long periods, stress accumulates in your back, causing tissue breakdown and pain. That’s why “moving throughout the day is the simplest way to prevent and relieve back pain,” says Dr. Wong.
After sitting for 30 minutes, stand or walk around for 10 to 15 minutes. Use this time to talk on the phone, get organized or take a break from the task at hand. Grab a snack or drink and enjoy it while standing. During every TV commercial break, pace around your house or tidy up the room. On long drives, pull over as often as is safely possible to stand up and stretch your legs. If your work keeps you tied to your desk, try a standing desk or treadmill desk, which makes it possible to stand or walk in place while reading, using a computer or talking on the phone.
As Dr. Wong explains, “The best exercises for back pain are the ones you can easily incorporate into your daily life.
While gym and Pilate’s equipment are tools to vary and enhance your wellness routine, there are many exercises you can effectively do at home or in the office without equipment to help prevent or relieve back pain. If you spend a lot of time slouched in front of a computer or leaning over a table, back extensions can alleviate the stress of forward bending. You can do these exercises while seated or standing or as prone press-ups (like yoga’s cobra pose).
Pelvic tilts are an easy way to engage your muscles through subtle movements that can also be done while sitting or standing.
Breathing exercises, such as inspiratory muscle training, “can be very beneficial for those experiencing back pain, because the diaphragm is one of the most important muscles for postural stability,” says Dr. Wong.
Because trunk and hip strengthening exercises are essential to protecting your back muscles from injury, side planks and squats are important foundational exercises. Be mindful that these movements can aggravate existing back pain, so they’re better suited for preventing—rather than reducing—pain.
“If you’re experiencing sharp or persistent back pain caused by nerve irritation—sometimes referred to as sciatica or radiculopathy—you may benefit most from neurodynamic exercises that are specifically designed to improve blood flow to the nerve and decrease nerve swelling,” he says.
When is exercising the wrong response to back pain?
If you’re experiencing significant back pain, it’s expected that most physical activity will slightly increase your pain.
“But, this should not deter you from doing the exercises or activities if the increase in pain is only slight and temporary,” says Dr. Wong. Exercises or activities should be avoided only if they cause a significant increase in back pain or if the pain does not return to the baseline level fairly quickly. “Staying active is important and the best thing for recovery. However, during back pain flare-ups, you should decrease the intensity of activity (such as brisk walking instead of running). High-intensity or physically demanding activities may worsen back pain and prolong your recovery.”
If your back pain does not start to improve in one to two weeks, you should see your doctor. Seek immediate medical attention if your back pain is accompanied by abdominal pain, fever, unexplained weight loss or neurological symptoms (such as loss of balance, weakness in the legs, persistent numbness, tingling sensations or changes in bowel and bladder function).
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.