Back pain affects nearly everyone at some point in their life. Whether it's due to a work-related injury or a slip and fall in the shower, back pain - and more specifically lower back pain - causes more global disability than any other condition. Yet despite how debilitating back pain can be, the good news is, there are ways to alleviate some of the pain and get you back to feeling like yourself again.
If you live with chronic or acute back pain, you know all too well how quickly it can stop you in your tracks. It used to be that if you were dealing with this condition, your doctor would tell you to stop any activity and even place you on bed rest. But we now know that inactivity is not the best way to treat all types of back pain.
In fact, US-based chiropractor Dr David Shapiro from Complete Spine Solutions says bed rest and lack of motion slows down the recovery process in some people. If you want to accelerate your healing time, think motion. You may find our Back Pain Exercises Videos helpful.
However, while exercise is usually a good thing, physiotherapist Dr Alice Holland from Stride Strong Physical Therapy does caution patients about doing exercises that are not specifically prescribed for them. The reason why, she says, is that back pain can originate from a herniated bulging disc or it could be from stenosis, or it could come from a sacroiliac dysfunction.
"Different exercises would ease the pain for different conditions. The stretch or exercise for bulging disc would absolutely aggravate patients with stenosis (although the latter is rare in younger people) and vice versa," she explains.
The bottom line is this: if you have a current back injury, work with your doctor or physiotherapist to come up with a series of exercises that target your specific problem.
Exercises to help prevent back pain
When it comes to exercises that can help prevent back pain, Holland says that is an entirely different issue.
"My strongest opinion is to strengthen the abdominals and strengthen the gluteus muscles [in your bottom]," she says.
One exercise that targets the abdominal muscles is the plank.
"Of course, some patients compensate heavily with this exercise because they are too weak to keep their hips up, so I encourage patients to maintain good form and modify the exercise (to make it easier) if it's too difficult," Holland explains. She says a strong core will protect the majority of people, regardless of their history or condition, from causing spinal joint issues.
Like Holland, Shapiro also agrees that the foundation of the strength of your body is your core. This region can be identified as the area located around your lower back and abdomen. He also recommends the plank for strengthening this area and preventing back pain - as long as you use good form and pay attention to your hips.
To do: lie downon your front with forearms on the floor and elbows beneath shoulders. Feet should be flexed with toes on the floor. Rise up on your toes so that only your forearms and toes touch the floor. Your body should be a few inches off the floor in a straight line. Bring belly button to spine, by contracting your deep abdominal muscles, and tighten your buttocks and upper body.
Double leg squat
To strengthen the gluteus muscles, Hollands says the traditional double leg squat is an excellent exercise to do. Cues to remember are hips back, core tight and knees aligned front.
To do: stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Extend arms out straight in front of you (palms down). Slowly bend your legs and squat down until thighs are parallel to floor or for an advanced move, go slightly lower than parallel. Keep your head up and look straight ahead. Pause at the bottom and stand back. Add dumbbells for resistance.
And you can't go wrong with walking. You don't have to walk fast to protect your back. Even slow laps around your living room are enough to help with mobility and recovery.
"That's because walking allows firing of the transverse abdominal muscles, which maintains core stability, and the cyclical swinging of arms and legs allows for blood flow and circulation," says Holland.
When to see a doctor
While many of the exercises and treatments you can do at home are helpful, there may be times when seeing a doctor is in order.
You can find out all the warning symptoms to look out for in our leaflet, but Shapiro also recommends consulting a doctor who is an expert in spinal problems when you have:
Sharp lower back pain
This could be a disc herniation or other acute spine or organ issue that needs to be addressed.
Lower back pain that lasts more than a week - this could be something serious that won't resolve on its own. This is less likely to be a muscle spasm and more likely to be an injury that should get medical attention.
Pain, coldness, tingling or weakness in the legs, feet or toes
This is generally inflammation of sensory or motor nerves. This can be something more serious. Vascular issues should be ruled out when more basic spine care does not resolve these symptoms.
A loss of bowel or bladder function
Go directly to A&E. This could indicate spinal cord compression and warrants immediate emergency medical attention.
Back pain does not have to disrupt your life forever. Through proper treatment, care and exercises, you can get back to living an active life.