Every movement your body makes engages your back in some way. So if it’s aching, you’re likely to be down and out, and looking for relief.
“Back pain is one of the most common reasons people see their health care providers, and the most common condition treated with physical therapy,” says Justin Keller, PT, an orthopedic certified specialist and director of Physical Therapy at Spine Team Texas, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Few of us will escape back pain in our lifetime. In fact, roughly 80 percent of Americans experience low back pain at some point. Although the spine is made for longevity, it won’t continue to provide mobility and stability over time if not taken care of.”
To avoid pain or injury, Keller says that it’s important to stretch and strengthen the muscles in the back and core. Strong muscles help support the spine and keep it mobile. Spinal flexibility and core strength also help keep your overall body free from injury.
“Core strength is key when it comes to spine health,” says Michael Garcia, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Spine Team Texas. “Most people don’t realize that core strength comes from three areas – abs, lower back, and your glutes. When your glutes are strong you can use them to take pressure off of the lower back.”
Keller notes that while exercise is good for low back pain, not all exercises and stretches are beneficial. Some can even aggravate a back issue. Always ask your health care provider before doing any exercise if you are experiencing back pain. Depending on the cause, location and intensity of your pain, some exercises may not be recommended and can be harmful.
Exercises for a Happy Back
- Prone Lying – This basic move will bring awareness to the spine. Lie flat on your stomach and relax for several minutes. Prone lying will prepare your body to move into other exercises.
- Press-Ups – From the prone lying position, use your arms to press your upper back and shoulders up off the ground for several seconds.
- Hamstring Stretches – Lie on your back and bend one knee. Loop a towel under the ball of the other foot. Straighten your knee and slowly pull back on the towel. You should feel a gentle stretch down your leg and back.
- Safety Squats – While holding on to a stable object, such as a counter top or a door frame, sit back as if you are sitting on a chair while keeping the curve in your lower back. Perform a squatting maneuver to a comfortable depth and then return to standing.
- Walking – Steady upright movement is beneficial in increasing blood flow around the structures of the spine.
- Swimming – Swimming is a good, low-impact exercise that creates traction through the spine while providing the feeling of weightlessness. You work against the resistance of the water to build strength. Just be sure not to bend with a twist of the spine as you move.
Exercises that May Hurt Your Back
- Running – Running is notoriously hard on the body because of high impact.
- Toe Touches –Standing toe touches put greater stress on the disks and ligaments in your spine. They can also overstretch lower back muscles and hamstrings.
- Sit-ups – Sit-ups may put a lot of pressure on the disks in your spine.
- Leg Lifts – Exercising to restore strength to your lower back can be helpful in relieving pain, but lifting both legs together while lying on your back is very demanding on your core. If weak, this exercise can worsen back pain.
- Lifting Weights – If you are suffering from acute (sudden) back pain, putting extra stress on back muscles and ligaments could raise the risk of further injury.
- Box jumps – Activities with gravity involved are tough on the back.
“I tell my patients to go slow and steady when it comes to exercising the back muscles,” Keller says. “But above all, be active, be reasonable and be consistent. Proper form is important for the most benefit, and the best techniques can be gotten from a practitioner certified in the use of McKenzie therapeutic exercises.”
Nursing an Injury and When to See a Doctor
If you’re battling a back or neck injury, Garcia says it will likely be short lived and can usually be treated at home with a little TLC.
“Most back pain will go away within 6-weeks with ice, rest and anti-inflammatories. Avoid heavy lifting or physical activities that involve excess twisting, like tennis or golf. It’s important to keep your muscles moving during the recovery period with lower impact activity like walking or swimming.”
When is it time to seek professional treatment for pain? “If after two weeks your pain is not improving whatsoever then it’s time to see a doctor. Seek emergency care if you experience shooting pain down the leg, loss of strength that is acute, like not being able to lift your foot, or loss of bladder function.”
Garcia recommends seeking care from a spine-focused physician. “Most back and spine issues don’t need to go immediately to a surgeon. In fact, 90% of back and neck pain patients won’t need surgery and can resolve their pain with nonsurgical treatment or physical therapy.”