Health Library

Categories > Exercise and Fitness > Exercising safely

Back pain: Don’t take it lying down

Aching back? Join the club. Four out of five adults say they’ve been brought down by back pain at some point during their lives. In fact, low-back pain, the most common form, is one of the top five reasons Americans see their doctors.

Low-back pain can have many causes, including poor posture, excess weight, mental stress that leads to muscle tension, muscle strain, a torn ligament or a slipped disk. Your back is especially susceptible to injury because it bears more weight than any other part of your body. What’s more, doctors can’t always determine the reason for backache or injury since a combination of several factors is often the cause.

An active lifestyle, which includes exercising to strengthen your back, is your best bet when it comes to preventing low-back problems. If you already suffer from chronic back pain, exercise can help prevent discomfort or recurring injuries by helping you build a stronger, more supple back, improve your posture and get rid of excess weight.

When lower back pain strikes

Since even getting up each morning can be agonizing when you’re suffering from back pain, you may be tempted to stay in bed until the pain subsides. A day or two of rest, nonprescription pain relievers and cold and warm compresses can help ease spasms, pain and inflammation. But prolonged bed rest can delay relief. Usually, light activity will help speed recovery. However, if your back pain lasts longer than 72 hours, see your doctor. He or she can prescribe medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle relaxants. If pain persists, he or she may give you a cortisone injection for relief. Massage therapy and acupuncture have also been shown to help relieve chronic low-back pain for some people.

Stand tall

Regular exercise is crucial for maintaining good posture and back health and for strengthening an already-achy back. Chronic lower back pain sufferers should ask their healthcare providers to help them develop a safe exercise program. Your workouts should include:

  • aerobic exercises like swimming and walking to stretch and strengthen your lower back muscles
  • strength training and flexibility exercises for making your back more durable
  • exercises that target and strengthen your abdominal muscles, since weak abs can place extra stress on your lower back

In addition, eat a healthful diet to help you shed any extra pounds that may be adding strain to your back. Also, don’t smoke-smokers tend to have lower levels of oxygen in their spinal tissue, which slows recovery from back problems.

To avoid injuring your back, follow these simple everyday precautions:

  • Lift objects with your legs, not with your lower back. Don’t twist while lifting. As you lift, hold the object you’re lifting close to your body.
  • Try to perform any heavy lifting late in the day instead of first thing in the morning when your back is not as flexible.
  • Sit with your lower back properly supported. If you must sit for long periods of time, try to get up and walk around frequently.
  • Improve your posture. Don’t slouch—keep your head and neck aligned over your shoulders and hips and your stomach pulled in.

Signs you need to see your doctor

How do you know whether you have a backache that will respond to self-care or that needs medical attention? Call your doctor if:

  • pain is intense, travels down your leg or prevents you from moving
  • your leg, foot, groin or rectal area feels numb
  • you have fever, nausea or vomiting, stomach-ache, weakness or sweating
  • an injury caused your pain
  • your pain hasn’t lessened after two to three weeks
  • you’ve had past episodes of back pain