Eric Murray – What exercises are best to fight back pain? |

Eric Murray – What exercises are best to fight back pain?

Eric Murray / Grand Health
Grand County, Colorado

You probably know that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your sore, aching back. Getting on your feet is another matter. The right exercises might be just the thing to get you back to doing what you enjoy.

• Back pain takes many forms. You may have injured your back in an automobile accident; or experienced pain when you reached down to pick up a piece of paper. You may have muscle pain, arthritis, disc-related pain or pain stemming from a pinched nerve.

• If your pain is bad enough, you’re probably seeing a doctor, and your treatment, including any exercise plan, will be determined by your diagnosis. Some basic recommendations, however, will be the same regardless of the diagnosis.

• Avoid the type of activity that caused the pain.

• While some bed rest may be needed, don’t overdo it. After a day or two, bed rest will tend to increase muscle stiffness and weakness, leading to even greater pain.

• If there’s inflammation, ice may help at first. Later, heat can be soothing.

• Even though the value of exercise both for prevention and treatment of back pain is widely accepted, a recent study published in Arthritis Care and Research (February, 2009) found that only about half of patients are given a prescription for exercise. Understandably, those most likely to prescribe exercise were physical therapists. And for maximum safety and effectiveness, it’s a good idea to have your therapy supervised by a PT.

• Any vigorous, jerking movements are to be avoided, but nearly everyone benefits from moving and stretching the muscles, ligaments and tendons around the spinal column that tighten up in reaction to pain.

The tension may be particularly strong first thing in the morning. Simple stretching exercises then, and at intervals throughout the day, can bring back some suppleness and mobility.

Good stretching should be to the point of mild tension and held for at least 15 to 20 seconds. Movements should be slow and relaxed with no bouncing and should not bring on pain. David Bronner, Physical Therapist recommends several exercises for back pain:

• THE CAT: Get on your hands and knees and arch your upper back while contracting your stomach muscles. Relax and let your head drop between your arms. Hold for 5 seconds and then slowly raise your head and lower your back. Avoid creating a swayback posture.

• KNEE TO CHEST: While lying on your back with legs straight out, place your hands around one knee and bring it toward your chest. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, then lower your leg and repeat with the other leg.

• SHOULDER BLADE SQUEEZE: Sitting on an armless chair or stool, squeeze your shoulder blades while keeping your chin tucked in and your chest high. Hold for 5 seconds, then relax.

• MID-BACK STRETCH: Stand with your feet apart and hands on your hips. At the waist, twist slowly to the right looking over your shoulder as far as you can. Hold, return, and then twist to the left.

You don’t have to wait until your back is sore to start stretching it regularly. And the same goes for preventive exercises to strengthen your back and stomach:

• THE HALF SIT-UP or crunch should always be done with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Tuck your chin in and raise your shoulders off the floor, reaching with both hands toward your knees.

• HEEL SLIDES: Lying on your back with legs straight, slowly bend one knee and then straighten it. Repeat 10 times with each leg.

There are many other good exercises for the back and abdomen: straight leg lifts, heel raises, wall squats. And many more on a balance ball.

Whether you’re seeing a physical therapist or following your own plan, aerobic exercise should be part of your back treatment. In addition to its effect on circulation and muscle fitness, aerobic exercise causes the body to release pain-killing endorphins. Studies have found a strong association between back pain and depression, and exercise can play a big role in lifting mood.

“For back pain patients, aerobic activities should be low impact. Walking is better than running; biking and swimming are preferred to walking,” said Bronner.

Despite the debilitating nature of back pain, studies have found that most patients pain get better on their own within a few weeks. Those who start exercising during that period can relieve some of the misery, hasten recovery and perhaps develop a habit that will have a lasting influence on good health.