Most people will experience some back pain during their lives. No matter your gender or whether you spend your workday on your feet or sitting, you could experience either acute or chronic back pain that affects your daily life. Most people — 72 percent — use pain medication to manage their symptoms, and 55 percent use hot and cold packs. Both those approaches can be effective, but they are not the only answer. Exercise can be one of the most effective ways to reduce pain and prevent future recurrence of the issue. Learn about some of the most common types of back pain and the exercises you can do to find relief.
Different Types of Back Pain
Before you start exercising, it is essential to understand the various causes of back pain. The source of your discomfort can be difficult to pinpoint, but there are several common reasons.
- Herniated or bulging disc: Discs are the tissue that sits between the vertebrae in your spine, essentially acting as a cushion. Disc herniation occurs when a portion of the soft interior of the disc slips out through the exterior. A herniated disc could be asymptomatic, but it could also cause pain, numbness or weakness in your limbs. These symptoms occur because the nerves in the area of the herniated disc become irritated. On the other hand, a bulging disc means the tissue begins to flatten, or bulge. Unlike a herniated disc, a bulging disc does not involve any tearing in the tissue. In most cases, people who experience a herniated or bulging disc will not need surgery.
- Pinched nerve: A pinched nerve occurs when a nerve gets compressed between different types of tissue, like bones or tendons. This compression can lead to pain that radiates beyond the point of the nerve root. This type of pain is known as radicular pain. A herniated disc can be one cause of a pinched nerve. This condition can also occur due to repetitive motion or staying stationary in a single position for long periods. Symptoms of a pinched nerve can include pain, numbness, tingling and weakness. Like many back pain problems, the source of a pinched nerve may be difficult to determine.
- Sciatica: Sciatica is a type of radicular pain. This condition refers to pain that moves along the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that runs down from each buttock and through each leg. The pain can manifest in the lower back and radiate all the way down through the foot on the affected side of the body. Sciatica can be another consequence of a herniated disc. Common symptoms include pain, burning, tingling and weakness along the pathway of the nerve. Most cases of sciatica will resolve without surgical intervention.
- Lumbar spinal stenosis: The lumbar spine refers to the five vertebrae that make up your lower back. Lumbar spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal narrows and irritates the nerves in your lumbar spine. This condition is typically age-related. Symptoms can include pain and weakness in your buttocks and legs. It is possible to experience radicular pain, like sciatica, as a result of lumbar spinal stenosis. Physicians will first try conservative treatment options like pain medication and physical therapy before opting for surgery.
The Best Exercises for Back Pain Relief
Exercise can be the first line of treatment and prevention of back pain. Once you have discussed the cause of the back pain with your physician, you can explore different exercise options to find relief.
- Swimming: Swimming is one of the best exercises for lumbar spinal stenosis. The water offers a low-impact environment to improve muscle strength, flexibility and endurance. Swimming can help stretch and strengthen the muscles that allow the spine to bend forward and backward. You can focus on working those muscles without putting pressure on your spine. As you float, your spine will stretch. While you move your arms and legs, you are building strength in not only those muscles, but also your core. Improved core strength means your body is better able to hold your weight, relieving pressure on your spine. Swimming can also be an effective way to lose weight, which is another step toward relieving spinal pressure.
- Bicycling: Biking can help address back pain. You can head outside and find a bike trail, or you can opt to use a stationary bike indoors. If you get a little more motivation in group exercise, you can try out a spinning class. Biking is an aerobic exercise that works several different muscle groups and improves endurance, without putting excess stress on your spine. For people with lumbar spinal stenosis, leaning forward can help relieve pain. Bicycling naturally causes the body to bend forward. You can, therefore, get in a strengthening workout without causing too much discomfort. If you find some relief from back pain by leaning backward, you can opt for a recumbent bike. While biking can be a helpful exercise option, keep in mind some issues that may contribute to back pain. For example, biking over bumpy ground may put more stress on your back. Depending on your posture, you may strain your neck. Choose even paths, or stick with the stationary bike to avoid rough terrain. When it comes to posture, play around with what is comfortable and adjust when necessary.
- Tai chi: Tai chi, a Chinese tradition, can be one of the best exercises for a bulging disc in the lower back and other back pain issues. A survey found approximately 90 percent of adults who practiced tai chi for back pain found some relief. Though this exercise is technically a martial art, the movements are slow and purposeful. This form of exercise involves moving smoothly through a series of different postures while focusing on your breathing and mental concentration. Tai chi does not place too much pressure on the spine, and it gently stretches and strengthens muscles throughout the body.
- Yoga: Yoga, a form of exercise that combines elements of stretching, core work and controlled breathing, can be one of the best exercises for a pinched nerve in the lower back. The different postures you move through on a yoga mat will improve your body’s flexibility, strength and stability. Certain poses, such as supine twist and downward-facing dog, really narrow in on the muscles in your lower back. To do a supine twist, you start out flat on your back. Bend your legs and move them to one side while keeping both of your shoulders firmly planted on the ground. Spread your arms out into a T shape and turn your neck in the opposite direction of your legs. This gentle twist will help ease tension in your back. Downward-facing dog, one of the staple poses of yoga practice, involves holding your body in an inverted V with your hands and feet planted on the ground. This posture will lengthen your entire back and stretch your hamstring muscles, which affect the lower back. Carefully listen to your instructor. Incorrectly getting into or holding positions can do more harm than good.
- Stretching: Simple stretching at home can help reduce the discomfort from lumbar spinal stenosis and other back pain issues. For example, repetitions of knee-to-chest stretches can help reduce pain. While lying flat on your back on the floor, take both knees in your hands, pull them to your chest and hold them there. Alternatively, you can hold one knee to your chest at a time while the other leg remains straight and on the ground. You can also try a couple of simple upper neck and back exercises, which may help with overall spinal alignment. For example, try repetitions of chin tucks or shoulder rolls.
- Core strengthening: The body’s core muscles play a role in stabilization, flexibility and range of motion. If your core muscles are weak, other muscles are going to take over to compensate. Sometimes, those muscles will be in your back. There are a lot of different core muscles, but relatively simple exercises can help you work all of them. For example, planks are an excellent core workout. You do not need any equipment or special instruction. Put your body in a push-up position, resting either on your hands or forearms, with a long, straight back. Hold that position. You can also try side planks. The concept is the same, but you place your body on one side. Lift and lower your body while you rest your weight on one forearm. Workouts like yoga and swimming also contribute to core strength.
The Benefits of Using Exercises to Manage Back Pain
Exercise requires endurance and commitment, but all that effort and sweat can be worth it. There are plenty of benefits of using exercise as a front-line approach to managing back pain.
- Pain management: Reducing or eliminating your pain was probably your top priority when you decided to begin exercising for a back issue. Exercise can result in relief without the use of medication or surgical intervention.
- Muscle strengthening: Many of the exercises that help manage back pain work muscles all over your body. As you get into a routine, you may notice your overall strength improving.
- Improved flexibility: As your muscles become stronger with regular exercise, you will also find your flexibility improving. Greater strength and flexibility can contribute to an improvement in your overall health and well-being.
- Stress relief: Research has shown a strong link between exercise and stress reduction. More than half of adults who exercise — 53 percent — say they feel good about themselves after a workout, while 35 percent of adults say exercise puts them in a good mood.
- Prevention: Once you begin to feel signs of progress, keep up the exercise routine. Improving and maintaining your strength and flexibility can help prevent future injury and back pain.
Exercises and Activities to Avoid
Exercise can be an active and healthy option to manage back pain, but certain exercises may exacerbate the problem. Here are some typical exercises to consider avoiding while you deal with back pain.
- Running: Running with a herniated disc or running with a bulging disc is not the best exercise option. Running and jogging are high-impact exercises, which means you are putting a lot of stress on your joints and your back. Inflammation in your sciatic nerve or in the area around your herniated disc could become worse as your feet pound on the pavement or the treadmill. Give your back a break and focus on low-impact exercise options, like swimming and yoga.
- Sit-ups: Sit-ups are an excellent exercise for working on core strength, but they do put a strain on the lower back. If you have a disc issue or a pinched nerve, you are going to feel it even more as your body curls from the lower back to complete each sit-up. If you like working out your core muscles at home, opt for an exercise like a plank instead.
- Toe touches: Bending down and touching your toes is an easy exercise to do at home, but the repetitive motion forces your lower spine to curl. This movement will put a strain on your discs, which can worsen the symptoms of any disc or pinched nerve problems you are experiencing. Try different yoga or tai chi poses to achieve the same kind of stretching you would get from doing toe touches.
- Leg raises: Leg raises are a common exercise people can do on equipment in the gym. You can use a machine with resistance weights to raise or lower both legs or one leg at a time while you are in a seated position. You may want to skip this exercise when dealing with back pain because it will cause your back to arch. As your back arches, you could experience hyperextension. Opt for exercises that give your back support and do not cause you to strain an area that is already causing you pain and discomfort.
What to Do If Exercise Isn’t Working
Exercise can do a lot when it comes to managing a herniated disc, bulging disc, pinched nerve, lumbar spinal stenosis and many other conditions that cause back pain. You have to be patient with your body and give it time for your exercise routine to make a change. However, it is not a guaranteed fix. If you are dedicating time and effort to exercise, but are seeing weeks go by without improvement, it is time to schedule a consultation. Reach out to our experts to get to the root of the problem, explore treatment options and get on the road to putting your back pain behind you.