Lower back pain? Don't take paracetamol, go swimming!

BSc in Health Studies, Dip.Nut
Ask Earle

08 November 2014

Why is paracetamol not always the best choice?

Lower back pain is a very common problem, thought to affect around 26,000,000 Brits. The causes are varied, ranging from bad posture, high levels of stress to weight problems. So with such a prevalent issue, it is no wonder that we need to find a solution.

Previously, doctors would generally prescribe paracetamol in order to ease the symptoms. However, a study recently published in Australia suggests that paracetamol for treating this type of back pain has no more effect than a placebo. Participants in the study were given either paracetamol or a placebo, and recovery speed from lower back pain was virtually the same: those taking paracetamol recovered in 17 days; those taking a placebo in 16.

Why does swimming help back pain?

So what can we do if the first stop treatment is not going to be effective? Many people extol the wonders of swimming and other types of water therapy in the treatment of lower back pain. This is because:

  1. It is low impact and not weight bearing so it does not cause further damage to muscles
  2. It gives you an all-round workout, stretching and exercising all of your muscles, without overdoing any particular muscle group
  3. The water offers enough resistance to make the exercise worthwhile, helping to build strength.

Top 5 hydro exercises to ease your lower back

So armed with your swimming trunks, and buckets full of enthusiasm, try these:

  1. Walking (or marching) through the water – this is a good way of stretching out any stiffness. Walking through water can be pretty hard going but can do wonders for your muscles. You can’t get away with any sloppy posture or scuffing of feet, so this makes sure that you are getting all the benefits of a good walk and more.
  2. Knee-to chest – develop your march into a full-blown on-the-spot knee-to-chest exercise. Standing on one slightly bent leg, bring your other leg up to your chest and hold the stretch. Do the same with the other leg, and repeat. If you need to, hold onto a wall with one hand as you do this exercise so that you don’t lose your balance and hurt your back even more.
  3. Raise your legs – Extend the previous exercise into leg lifts. Straighten out the leg you are lifting and try to bring it 90° to your body or further if you are able. If you perform these exercises regularly, your flexibility will increase, and you will be able to stretch further.
  4. SUPERMAN – place both hands on the side of the pool, shoulder-width apart, and STRETCH. The buoyancy of the water should support you as you float, so stretch out your legs as far as they will go. This exercise will help to stretch your shoulders, upper back, lower back and legs.
  5. Backstroke – this is a good option of stroke for those with lower back pain as it minimises hyperextension (extension of the back.) Other strokes, such as butterfly or freestyle require more twisting of the trunk, which could lead to worsening of back pain. If you have not swum for a while, or are learning how to swim, then breaststroke may be a good option. It is important to ensure you are adopting good technique, and if necessary, work with a coach.


Remember, exciting as water exercises are, reign in your enthusiasm by lowering yourself into and raising yourself out of the water very gently. Jumping or diving in is perhaps not the best plan, and leave those somersaults for twinge-free days. If you are training to be an elite athlete, then your body will be put under much more strain, and you should seek the advice of your trainer to ensure that you do not incur injuries.

If nothing else, splashing about in a swimming pool is a lot more fun than swallowing tablets. So let us know how you get on easing your troublesome back pain with the help of water…

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