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 is you, know that this way of working may not be in your best interest. But what should you do when you want - or need - to exercise when your back is sore?

The first thing is to have confidence in your own body awareness.  This means that you can, based on your pain level and the type of pain you experience, determine whether exercising on a given day is a good idea.

 If it is, you'll then need to assess the type of movement that is appropriate.  For example, you might ask yourself: Which is my best course of action - lifting weights, going for a run, or possibly scaling it down a notch with a light stretching session, or something else? Monitoring your exercise intensity levels, as well as the duration of your exercise session is also important.

Dr. Andre Panagos, physiatrist, sports medicine doctor and director Spine and Sports Medicine in New York City, encourages his patients to "take ownership of their bodies." Panagos says patients themselves are in the best position to know when to stop exercising and seek medical care instead.

If your back pain is mild, you could try some 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 for a few days before trying again. 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.

Try Walking Your Back Pain Away

One often 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 recommend it as an effective form of exercise or activity, cautioning that it needs to be supplemented with specific strategies for your back or other problem area(s).

Once a significant injury or another 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. And some gentle Pilates or beginners' yoga may help to release muscle spasms and restore you to your former vigor.

Related: What is Fear of Movement?****Should You Stretch An Acute Back Injury?


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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