Working Out with Back Pain - Is it a Good Idea?

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Many people feel they have to pound through pain in order to keep up with their fitness plan. If this describes you, you may want to know that such an attitude is likely not in your best interest when your back is acting up.

But what should you do if you want  — or need — to exercise when your back is sore?

Use Body Awareness

Perhaps my best tip is simply to have confidence in your own body awareness.

Based on your pain level and the type of pain you experience, you are the one in the best position to determine whether or not exercising on a given day is a good idea.

Dr. Andre Panagos, physiatrist, director of Spine and Sports Medicine in New York City, agrees, encouraging people to "take ownership of their bodies." Panagos gives patients — and not doctors fitness trainers or exercise instructors — the credit for knowing when it's time to stop working out and start seeking medical care instead.

If today is not the best day to exercise, the usual recommendation is to scale back your activity levels to the point where your pain is either manageable or gone, but don't succumb to full out bed rest. Most doctors say this is the quickest way to get past an episode of back pain.

Shift the Intention for Your Exercise Routine

If you and your back are feeling up to the effort, then it's on to the the 2nd tip: Fit the workout to the way you currently feel.

For this, think about the type of workout that would be most appropriate in light of your condition. In many respects, a workout to help you get past a bout of back pain is similar to an easy day workout — as long as you factor in the fact that along with the potential to increase your fitness levels, movement and exercise offer healing potential.

 

When you shift the intention of your exercise routine towards taking care and feeling better, it's best to do less. You can accomplish this by monitoring intensity, duration, type and by careful selection of movements.

You might ask yourself: Given my pain level plus the location of the pain, is it better for me to stick with my usual 2 hour weight lifting and/or running program, or might I be better off scaling things down a couple of notches with a half-hour of light stretching session, an hour of aquatic exercise or something similar?

By the way, aquatic exercise may be an overall good choice when you're back hurts. This is because it can give you a full workout minimal pounding of your joints.

Another question to ask yourself is: Will doing this specific movement take my joints beyond a moderate range of motion? Some exercises are simply more risky than others, based on how vulnerable the joint that's being moved is, plus far that joint is taken. When you're hurting, it's best to keep the action in a comfortable range. This is one way you might scale your existing workout down to accommodate your back.

Home Therapies to Get You Over the Hurdle

If your back pain is mild, you could try home therapies such as ice, massage, heat or over-the-counter pain medications to help you through this time.

This is the route many professional athletes take when they have to deal with back pain at game time. It seems to work for them!

If the back pain increases when you try to exercise, it's best to stop exercising or greatly reduce the time and intensity for a few days before trying again.

Home remedies are not for everyone. If you think you may have a torn ligament or a broken bone—or have otherwise injured yourself significantly—see a doctor. In addition, if have a fever, have experienced a traumatic event, or have unexplained weight loss, see your doctor to rule out more serious causes of pain.

How 'Bout Some Walking?

One oft overlooked form of exercise for people with sore backs is walking. Substituting walking for your usual, harder, workout may help you keep the health benefits of aerobic activity going — not to mention alleviating some or all of your pain. That said, walking may only be a short-term pain relief solution. A 2015 study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine Rehabilitation found that while walking is associated with improvement in chronic musculoskeletal pain (including back pain,) its effectiveness as a long term fix is not certain. The study authors caution that walking needs to be supplemented with specific strategies that target your back or other problem area(s).

General Strategies, Revisited

Once a significant injury or back pain cause has been ruled out, many people find that small modifications to their exercise routine are all they need. Along with the suggestions above, you may want to consider water exercise, which can take the load off your joints but still give you a full workout. Or continue with your normal routine, but for less time and/or with less intensity. Adding in some gentle core support work or beginners' yoga may help to release muscle spasms and restore you to your former vigor.

Sources

O'Connor S., Tully M., Ryan B., Bleakley C., Baxter G., Bradley J., McDonough S.Walking exercise for chronic musculoskeletal pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. April 2015. Accessed May 2016.

Panagos, A., M.D., Spine and Sports Mediciner New York City. Phone Interview. 2008.

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