When your back hurts it can put a damper on your whole world. It’s hard to relax and you don’t want to move any more than necessary for fear of making the back pain worse. As for exercise – this is one time you feel completely justified in skipping your workout. But before you retire to the couch with your hot water bottle, you should know that exercise may actually help get you relief from persistent back pain.
Low back pain is such a common health problem, it’s a load most of us will bear in adulthood. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 70% of adults suffer from this chronic condition (1,2). We know there are many contributing factors: age, physical fitness and general health, occupational requirements (e.g. heavy lifting and/or repetitive movements), stress and anxiety levels (2), but there is much we don’t understand about who will be affected, or when, or by what degree. When back pain strikes, treatment options are limited and often aren’t very effective in providing adequate relief (3).
Exercise therapy for relief of low back pain isn’t a new concept; it’s consistently recommended based on studies that show it helps improve physical function (strength, flexibility and range of motion) and reduces pain, at least to a small degree (4,5). But what works best? Are some exercises more effective than others when it comes to relief of low back pain?
A 2015 systematic review of 45 randomized controlled trials provides some answers (6). The studies involved 4,462 adults between the ages of 30 and 62 who had low back pain. They participated in one of four different categories of exercise programs:
coordination/stabilization – focusing on balance and agility
strength/resistance – targeting major muscle groups
cardio-respiratory – aerobic and continuous motion
combined exercises (with more than one component – eg. strengthening, stretching and aerobic training)
The exercise programs lasted from one and a half to 18 weeks, after which participants’ pain scores were compared with those in control group who carried on with their usual activities or received other types of therapy for their back pain.
What the research tells us
Evidence from the review confirms that exercise is good for people with bad backs, however not all exercises are equal when it comes to reducing pain. Strength and resistance training appear to be the most effective with participants reporting “medium” improvement, followed by coordination/stabilization exercises that reduced pain by a small amount. Cardio exercises and combined exercises had little significant impact on pain levels.
While exercise may not completely relieve your back problems, it is a non-surgical, drug free and low cost therapy that may help ease your pain and discomfort and improve your range of motion.
Looking for exercises to prevent or relieve a bad back?
Talk to your doctor or physiotherapist about the best exercises for your abilities.