By Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie
When your back’s aching, the last thing you want to do is move. But tough love is the key to relief, according to a growing body of research finding that moving your body — from walking to lifting weights — is better for a bad back than bed rest. While lying still encourages already-sore muscles to stiffen up further, moving — even gently — gets blood and joint-lubricating fluids pumping through your body. Moreover, keeping muscles strong supports your joints and protects your back from strain. Here are some tips for understanding back pain, and how to safely exercise your aches away.
The first step to relieving your pain is understating what’s causing it — and that’s not as easy as it sounds. There’s a lot going on under the surface. In addition to housing much of your spinal cord, the structure of the back is made up of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and disks — any of which can be the root of your pain.
Furthermore, even if you feel pain in a particular area of your back, it can stem from just about anynything: wearing the wrong shoes, tightness in your leg muscles or underlying problems in your knee or hip joints can all manifest as back pain. Still, the most common causes of back pain are sprains or strains which can be caused by anything from bending over to pick up something heavy to carrying a heavy purse every day. Once you know where the pain’s actually coming from, you can treat it more effectively.
Often, do-it-yourself treatment is enough to cure back pain. Start with ice to reduce inflammation (don’t use heating pads, which can contribute to inflammation), take an anti-inflammatory (as indicated on the package label or by your doctor) like ibuprofen or naproxen and avoid being still for too long (lack of movement can increase tightness as well as susceptibility to spasms).
But if three days pass without any improvement, it’s time to call a pro. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion or ask for clarification if your physician prescribes bed rest, though. A 2011 study in the journal Pain found that despite research suggesting the benefits of staying active in treating low back pain, many health care practioners still prescribe rest. Meanwhile, Swedish researchers split 109 back pain sufferers between two groups: one that was told to let pain be their guide, and the other that was advised to “stay active even though it hurts.” The active group recovered faster and felt less depressed.
The key to easing your back pain with exercise is to find activities or routines that will support and strengthen muscles, not strain them. Swimming and walking are good low-impact forms of cardio, which can help to manage weight (a common contributor to back pain) and maintain mobility. And don’t forget strength training. One 2009 study found that strength training produced the best results among people with back pain, beating out aerobic machines as well as bed rest.
One of the more effective ways to cure back pain may be to stretch it out. Back pain sufferers who took either weekly yoga classes or weekly stretching and strength classes were twice as likely to decrease their pain meds as a control group, found a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. But keep in mind not every yoga class is ideal treatment for back pain. Steer clear of “power” classes, which promise a vigorous workout but may sacrifice some of the attention to form and modifying poses to individual needs, and make sure to communicate your back issue with the instructor before class. Beware of positions such as cobra that can compress your low back and cause or worsen back pain.
There are several simple stretches you can try on your own, either at home or at the gym. Remember, it’s important to know beforehand what moves will help heal, and what moves could slow your recovery. Here are a couple of stretches to get you started — and one to avoid.
Do: Knees to Chest
Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, pull one knee at a time toward your chest, then both together, rolling up into a ball. Then, feet back on the floor, extend your arms out to the sides and lower your knees to one side, then the other, holding for 5 to 10 seconds in each position. Repeat 2 to 3 times, doing the stretches morning and night for the greatest benefit.
This exercise strengthens the butt, thighs, and core muscles, all of which support healthy back movement and help to prevent pain. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat, then lift your hips and lower back until your body is in a straight line from knees to shoulders. Hold for three long, slow breaths, then lower. Repeat 5 to 10 times.
Do: Safer Hamstring Stretch
Instead of bending over to touch your toes (seated or standing) do this: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Extend one leg straight and lightly pull it toward you. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds and switch to the other leg. Repeat 2 to 3 times on each side.
Don’t: Toe touches
Remember the sit-and-reach or V-sit from elementary school P.E.? These days many experts say you should steer clear for the benefit of your back. “Excessive forward flexion can actually exacerbate low back pain as this motion places a great deal of compression on the lumbar spine,” says Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise.
All of these exercises, (except the “don’t”!) can be done daily. While you may be tempted to phase them out after your pain is gone, continue to do them — they will help to prevent a relapse. If you have trouble getting motivated on your own, check out a yoga or Pilates class, both which have been shown to be beneficial for back pain sufferers.
Published April 10, 2012.
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie is a health and fitness writer in Syracuse, NY and author of the newly-released book Tone Every Inch (Rodale, 2012).