How to make sure exercise isn't worsening your back pain

BSc in Health Studies, Dip.Nut
Ask Earle

14 July 2016

Back pain and exercise

If you often suffer from back pain you may find that exercise makes it worse, which makes it easy to simply avoid exercising altogether. Some people also find that their back pain only occurs when they exercise. In most cases a small amount of exercise is exactly what you need to stretch and strengthen the back and reduce back pain so it's important you find a way to exercise without causing pain.

When people experience heightened back pain as a result of exercise, it is usually because they are doing the wrong types of exercise or simply over-exercising. We advise on how to adjust your exercise regime to be a bit gentler on your back, and give some tips on how to relieve back ache caused by exercise.

What exercises can I and can't I do?

If you are experiencing back pain or know that you are prone to back pain, here is some advice about what forms of exercise you should and shouldn’t do:

  • Avoid running. The jolting and bouncing that accompanies running can make back pain worse. A brisk walk will likely be more beneficial. If you don’t want to give up running, instead make sure that you have a good posture while doing so – no slouching! Keep your shoulders back and your head up, and make sure you have a good pair of shock-absorbing running shoes
  • Switch to low-impact sports. A great exercise for back pain is swimming because the water supports your joints and your back to help you exercise more comfortably. Another great low impact exercise is yoga. A lot of yoga sessions can be specially tailored to help back pain by stretching the muscles in and around the back. Watch this video for an idea of how yoga can be used for back pain. If you’re going to a class you may wish to notify the instructor of your bad back so that they can let you know which poses to skip, or how to adjust them to make them more comfortable
  • Avoid lifting heavy weights, as your back is involved in most aspects of weight lifting. If you can’t give up the weights, at least reduce them until your back has recovered, make sure to lift properly by bending your knees not your back, and invest in a good weight lifting belt to support your back
  • Try to avoid high intensity, over-strenuous exercise. That class named ‘body attack’ may not be the best idea for someone with a vulnerable back.  Steady, controlled exercise will be more beneficial than exercise that has you jumping between sprinting, press ups, push ups and star jumps for half an hour
  • Remember: always warm up and stretch before exercise, and cool down and stretch after exercise to reduce the risk of injury, strained muscles and stiff muscles.

What’s important to remember is that your body’s response to exercise is a good indicator of whether it is helping or not, so listen to it! If jogging is causing you excruciating pain, then stop. If it makes your back feel better, don’t stop just because I suggested it might not be good for you! You might need to try a few things before you find something that works for you.

What can I do to relieve back pain caused by exercise?

If the above tips are too late for you and you’re already sofa-bound with an aching back, here are some tips to help relieve your back pain:

  • Use a hot or cold compress, depending on which is best for your back pain. Wrap an ice pack or hot water bottle in a towel and apply to the affected area for soothing relief.
  • Gently stretch to relieve stiffness. With your feet hips-width apart, gently twist your torso to look behind you. Don’t force it – just twist until you feel it stretching. You could also try bending your knees a little and reaching down towards the ground – adjust the bend in your knees until you feel a nice stretch. For more ideas of exercises for back pain, follow this link
  • Run a warm bath with your choice of bubble bath or bath soak. Lavender is great for muscle aches and pains, so try adding a little lavender essential oil to your bath, or find a bath soak that contains lavender
  • Use arnica gel such as Atrogel to soothe pain. Just rub it on the affected area to feel it soothe pain, stiffness and swelling. This is great both for pain that appears sporadically and more chronic pain
  • Devil’s Claw will be useful at relieving more long term back, joint and muscle pain. It is most effective when taken regularly, so will not be useful for back pain that only lasts a day or two.

If your back pain is severe, make an appointment to see your GP or physiotherapist as they will be able to determine the cause of your pain: it may be a case of bad posture, a slightly misaligned spine, a slipped disc or simply over-exercising. It’s always best to get it checked out to be sure.

For more information on back pain, the different types, causes and treatments, head over to A.Vogel Talks Back pain. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask Earle using our Q&A service.

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