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How exercise can help reduce your back pain

According to The National Centre for Biotechnology Information, "Low back pain probably affects around one-third of the UK adult population each year. Of these, around 20% (1 in 15 of the population) will consult their GP about their back pain." Source:

In addition to this, most of us will experience non-specific low back pain at some point our lives. This is the nagging pain that can last anywhere from 6 weeks to a year, sometimes never fully resolving and often causing tension and strain for years. In many cases the causes of back pain are not found and the sufferer learns to live within the constraints of the pain cycle.

In this article we'll be looking at the types of exercises that can assist better management of back pain and making clear when treatment for back pain should be sought.

Firstly, when should you seek medical help for low back pain? If you experience shooting pains down your leg you should make an appointment to see a physiotherapist as these pains often indicate nerve impingement. The physiotherapist will usually prescribe exercise like Pilates, however they will also have checked you over first to ensure you're safe to begin. Another occasion where you should seek immediate medical help is if you experience incontinence, motor weakness or sensory loss in the low back area.

These two alarming issues aside, the majority of low back pain can be better managed with exercise. That's not to say it can be fully prevented or fixed but in many cases exercise can help reduce the incidence of low back pain, reduce the length of time a sufferer spends in pain and reduce the fear of the recurrence of back pain.

How does this work? Here are some of the causes of back pain along with an explanation of why exercise helps.

Restoring good quality posture: Our lifestyles can take a toll on our bodies. Too much desk work can alter the appropriate length of our muscles and cause us to experience back pain as a result. Sedentary jobs where we spend many hours sitting are proven to shorten the length of the hip flexor muscles which run across the front of the hips. These muscles pull on our spine and can impact negatively on our backs. In addition, this same seated position causes the muscles at the back of the thighs to also shorten, exacerbating this problem. Taking time to stretch regularly can help reduce the effects of a desk job and minimise the occasions of pain in most people.

Mobilising a seized back: Sometimes, the muscles in our back can hold themselves in a "switched on" position. This causes the feeling of a blanket of pain across our lower back. Although it can feel as it we're completely stuck and can't move, using these muscles helps switch them on and off again, allowing them to release. Holding ourselves stiff to prevent this pain will almost certainly cause other muscles in our back to be overused and they in turn will then stiffen up, thus aggravating the problem. Returning to controlled movement quickly is the easiest fix so understanding how this should feel and how to safely keep moving is paramount in reducing the time spent in pain.

Strengthening key areas: When the group of muscles around the belly, lower back and the buttocks is out of shape it is extremely likely that back pain will be felt. Unsurprisingly, these muscles help support the lower part of the spine and are responsible for much of our bending, straightening, side-leaning and rotating. As such they are often called "the Powerhouse" or "the core". Without a regular exercise program to build strength in these specific muscles it's likely that we'll draw on other muscle areas to compensate. This leads back to poor posture and also to the risk of straining other areas as these muscles attempt to create movements for which they were never developed. An example of this would be an overuse of the muscles in the neck and shoulders when lifting heavy objects rather than a safer bracing of the belly and lower back.

Increasing joint mobility: As we age our joints become less cushioned. Bony edges are exposed, causing grinding and inflammation which makes movement more limited and painful. The tendons attaching our muscles to our bones become dryer and less malleable as a result of ageing and an increase of sedentary habits. This reduction of movement leads to poor posture, more sedentary behaviour and lack of muscle tone. Gentle, controlled exercise increases the blood flow to the bones which encourages cell repair. It also provides a greater degree of the cushioning fluid around our joints which helps the ends of long bones remain more spongy and able to respond to impact. Flexibility moves help maintain muscle and tendon length for longer, thereby maintaining the range of movement available to us at each joint.

Please remember, it's very difficult to learn how to move your body safely and in good alignment when you're experiencing pain. Instilling a quality, regular back care regime is therefore imperative to long term back management. So how can you safely and effectively strengthen your back?

Pilates is one of the key exercise modes that aids in lower back pain prevention. This is because it focuses on correct usage of the Powerhouse alongside joint mobility, good quality alignment and flexibility of muscles - all areas mentioned above as potential causes of back pain. It can take between 3-8 sessions to learn the ropes with Pilates and it's a very slow and controlled kind of exercise. You should seek a minimum requirement of a level 3 Mat Pilates instructor for basic strengthening or for back pain management look for an instructor with a level 4 qualification in exercise for lower back pain management.

Graduated exercise programs are another key method of managing back pain. An instructor with a level 4 qualification in exercise for lower back pain management will examine you to ascertain whether you have an over reliance on some muscle groups, whether others are too tight, weak or long, and write a program of easy to follow exercises to resolve this. They cannot diagnose the cause of the back pain, rather they work on the basis that some muscle groups require stretching or strengthening and that this, in turn, should help relieve known causes of lower back pain.

When you consider the variety of movement that's possible around the lower back, the small amount of joint connection at that area, the reliance on musculature to support the weight of both the upper and lower limbs, it's not surprising that the lower back is a particular area of contention for many of us. Understanding the needs of your back, installing a program of exercises designed for your own back's needs and learning how to manage incidences of back pain can help relieve the anxiety brought on by regular back pain. As a long term back pain sufferer I can testify how much easier life is when an incidence of back pain can be viewed as a temporary inconvenience rather than a full blown life changing disaster. It still happens; I modify, I exercise, I stretch and I relax. Even though I may be in considerable pain I don't panic, I understand that it's temporary and I adjust my expectations while it mends. I'll never be pain free but I'm still fitter than I was 20 years ago.

Enjoy Good Health.


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