Exercise Can Play Big Role in Easing Chronic Lower Back Pain

Patient Expert

Did you know that approximately one-fourth of adults in the United States experience back pain at least once during a three-month time period. Unfortunately, I am now officially one of them and have several other friends who are members of this group.

So what does back pain have to do with diet and exercise? A lot, as it turns out.   The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) has identified both as risk factors for back pain.   For instance, people who don't exercise regularly often have weak core muscles that don't do a good job of supporting the spine. Additionally, people who adopt a "weekend warrior" approach (exercise a lot on the weekends while being inactive the rest of the week) are actually more likely to have painful backs. And obesity puts additional stress on the back. NIAMS also identified other risk factors for back pain, which include:

  • Age. The first lower back pain commonly occurs between the ages of 30 and 40. Back pain also becomes more common as we age.
  • Heredity. Some diseases of the spine actually are passed through genes.
  • Race.   African American women are two to three times more likely than white women to have a condition in which the vertebra of the lower spine slips out of place.
  • Other diseases, such as arthritis and cancer, can affect the spine.
  • Occupations. Jobs that require heavy lifting, pushing or pulling can lead to back pain. In addition, people who have an inactive job or a desk job also may suffer from back pain.
  • Cigarette smoking. Smoking not only increases the risk of developing low back pain, sciatica and osteoporosis, but also may block the body's ability to deliver nutrients to lower back disks.

So how can you ease chronic back pain? NAIMS pointed to four specific types of exercise that are helpful:

  • Flexion exercises. These exercises, in which you bend forward, widen the spaces between the vertebrae and reduce pressure on the nerves, stretch back and hip muscles, and strengthen the abdomen and buttocks. However, if you have a herniated disk, please check with your doctor before trying these exercises.
  • Extension exercises are exercises in which you bend backwards. These exercises, in which you bend backwards, include doing leg lifts and raising the torso. You should do these while lying on your stomach.
  • Stretching. These exercises improve the extension of muscles.
  • Aerobic exercise. However, avoid exercises that require twists or vigorous forward flexion since these exercises may increase pressure on the disks. You also should avoid high-impact exercise if you have disk disease.

Interestingly, yoga and stretching can provide about the same amount of relief for people with chronic lower back pain. That's based on research funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.   This study followed 228 adults who had this type of chronic pain for more than six months. These participants were divided into three groups. The first group was given a self-care book that provided information on the causes of back pain as well as advice about lifestyle choices, exercising, and managing pain flare-ups. A second group was asked to participate in 12 weekly classes of viniyoga-style yoga, which emphasized posture, breathing exercises and guided deep relaxation. The third group participated in 12 weekly classes of conventional stretching exercises. The yoga and stretching groups also received supplemental material and were asked to practice 20 minutes per day when classes were not scheduled.

The researchers found that participants in the yoga group described greater improvement of symptoms and function after 12 weeks than did participants in the self-care group. Furthermore, the yoga group also had greater improvement in function after 26 weeks than did the self-care group. Interestingly, researchers found that participants in the yoga group and the stretching group had similar improvements in symptoms and function.

So to get ease chronic lower back pain, get off the couch or chair and start stretching and exercising